After titling his last album “Fear of the Dawn,” Jack White now goes gentle into that good morning with “Entering Heaven Alive,” a follow-up being released all of 15 weeks later. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with two records so wildly different: “Heaven” is as graceful as its predecessor was gonzo. The fact that he recorded both in the same fertile burst of energy, and originally even planned to release it all as one (presumably double) album, seems incalculable. He did the right thing, anyway, overseeing a commercial divorce between these primarily electric and primarily acoustic releases. Even if you’re a proud fan of sprawling, eclectic mega-albums, there’s something to be said for sustaining a mood, too.
The vibe of “Entering Heaven Alive” is, well, wood-paneled, compared to the companion album’s metallic sheen. But track-to-track sameness poses no danger, however granola the prospect of extended finger-picking may sound on paper. Even within a semi-unplugged framework, White contains multitudes, packing in plenty of styles under one faintly folksy umbrella. One thing that immediately stands out is White’s wholly underrated knack for making great piano-based roots-rock recordings. He may never be celebrated on the cover of Upright Juke-Joint Piano World magazine, but that’s the kind of flavoring that puts tracks from the opening “A Tip From You to Me” to the closing “Taking Me Back (Gently)” over the top. In a very different mode, though, current touring pianist Quincy McCrary adds distinctly jazz elements to “I’ve Got You Surrounded (With My Love)” that turn that outlier centerpiece into a mini-masterpiece of band performance.
There are moments when the album flirts with early-‘70s mellow gold, which is no knock. “All Along the Way,” which is one of a handful of numbers in which White is his own DIY one-man band (except for bride Olivia Jean joining in), could almost come from the placid catalog Paul McCartney racked up when he was left alone on the farm with the lovely Linda. Another track might also make you think of Macca. On the more surreal, guitar-less “A Tree on Fire From Within,” White essentially plays lead bass through the whole tune, and you’d almost swear it was McCartney’s highly melodic Hofner.
Lest this all seem too ’60s or ’70s-redolent, White is really taking you back in a handful of tracks that stretch to find him recalling earlier parts of the 20th century. “Please God, Don’t Tell Anyone” has the narrator literally begging the Almighty not to tattle on him and his lawbreaking ways to family members who might precede him into the afterlife; it might sound funny in concept, but White treats it as seriously, and ultimately touchingly, as if it were a vintage country-death song. There’s a narrative conceit to a character song like that, but “If I Die Tomorrow” touches on a more universal mortal anxiety in its thoughts about outliving loved ones.
But the album is largely filled with love songs. White swears this has little or nothing to do with his own personal life, which of course involved some recent nuptials, but coincidentally or otherwise, this may be his most romantic album, overall. On a mid-album highlight, the rollicking, nearly ragtime-y “Queen of the Bees,” White sounds downright hysterical as romantic infatuation leads him to coo: “Let’s take a stroll to the end of the street / Put your hand in my pocket so the neighbors can see / I want them to see, I want them to see / Oh Lord, let them see!” As his croon becomes a bellow in that moment of romantic euphoria, it feels as manic a moment as anything on his “electric” albums. The rub is gentler, but there’s no less reason to feel tickled.