What made the Dead Weather’s debut such a success was the rediscovered inspiration and slick song stylings that fans of Jack White had been waiting for since the White Stripes went on hiatus. Despite the power of White’s brand name, though, the real star of Horehound was Allison Mosshart. Long the dark princess of the garage-punk underground with her work with the Kills and Discount, the Dead Weather put Mosshart into the limelight. Thanks to a great album (Midnight Boom) and one of the best mid-sized venue live acts you’ll ever see, Mosshart turned into a bona fide rock star. As such, the profile of the Dead Weather as a cohesive entity, and not just of White’s name, has been raised, and the result is an old cliche: On their second album, Sea of Cowards, the musicians seem to be making music more for themselves than for anybody else.
On Sea of Cowards, Jack White takes greater responsibility of the duties of a frontman. He harmonizes with Mosshart, displaying a kind of chemistry with a fellow musician that he hasn’t had since Meg. This is certainly the most inspired Jack White release since Icky Thump, an album that Sea of Cowards occasionally sounds exactly like.
Unfortunately, Sea of Cowards lacks the strength and precision in songwriting that Icky Thump, Midnight Boom, and Horehound all possessed. As a lead single, “Die By The Drop,” lacks any of the immediate impact of a song like “Hang You From The Heavens.” “Gasoline,” the only song here with any variety from the rest, still sounds like at best an Icky Thump B-side. And the rest of the songs sound almost remarkably the same. Listen to Sea of Cowards as a full album and you’ll be waiting for any song to grab you — it’s sometimes confusing when one song ends and another begins. And just picking out the highlights is no less futile.
For fans of Horehound, as I undoubtedly was, think of an album consisting of 11 variations of “I Cut Like A Buffalo” with the only standouts coming when the volume is raised. For White Stripes and Kills fans, there’s less to like. Unless Icky Thump was your idea of a perfect White Stripes album (an album that itself eschewed the maturity of Elephant and Get Behind Me Satan), Sea of Cowards is not going to have any legs.
Unlike the Ranconteurs’ sophomore slump, Sea of Cowards doesn’t suffer from lack of inspiration. It’s simply a matter of a lackluster songwriting effort as the product of deserved success, which in some respects is a worse misstep.