Jack White hasn’t sounded this uninhibited and happy since his glory days with The White Stripes. The musical magpie and avowed Dylan obsessive has at last made his own Blood on the Tracks. Lazaretto is the product of a master craftsman at the height of his powers, letting it all hang out, and like Dylan in 1975 it comes at the end of a turbulent period for the artist.
White’s many fans, and I’m one of them, have had to endure a seemingly endless series of worthy but joyless recordings. Whether burying himself in alt.supergroups such as The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, or his head-scratching collaborations with Alicia Keys and U2, White has appeared to be a man grasping at musical straws ever since the release of Icky Thump, the final album of his famous duo with his one-time wife Meg White, in 2007.
It hasn’t helped that the global superstar has had to endure several years of tabloid-ready headlines for the usual “wrong reasons”: bad behaviour in public places, and a personal life that is far from perfect and nowhere near private.
It’s easy to scoff at the notion of celebrities finding life in the spotlight difficult but only a Kardashian welcomes that kind of leering scrutiny. No wonder White comes out with such lyrics as, “‘Stop what you’re doing and get back in line!’… I’m tired of being told what to do” (from “Entitlement”). Then again, he has always swum against the mainstream, so these words may say more about his artistic raison d’être than any personal brouhaha.
Lazaretto opens with a rollicking burst of blues braggadocio. The deep waters of the blues have always been first port of call for White. “Three Women” has its narrator hollering about his sexual prowess over a classic 12-bar structure: “I got three women/Red, blonde and brunette”, before subverting the template in the chorus. “Lordy lord!” I use the term “narrator” deliberately here because although Karen Elson, White’s more recent ex-wife, is a famous redhead, White has demurred at the notion that the song is in any way a self-portrait. Why, the first verse even mentions taking a “digital photograph”, something White himself would never countenance. He loathes digital technology and frequently rails against the damage it has done to artists and the arts.
As an album opener “Three Women” compares favourably with “Black Dog” on Led Zeppelin IV, and it’s just as important in the way it sets the scene for what is about to come. Serving as a declaration of first principles, it reassures us that White is once again doing what he does – and loves – best.
Next is the title track, “Lazaretto”, and it’s a real doozy. Another mighty blues workout with eccentric flashes of Captain Beefheart overlaid with rapid-fire hip-hop rhyming couplets and super-distorted guitar. The song switches gear several times, messing with tempos and the listener’s expectations, but it never loses momentum. It climaxes unexpectedly with a double-tracked violin solo, and this shotgun marriage of unlikely musical bedfellows is a theme that continues throughout the album. Nothing is off-limits, but nothing is out of place.
The suggestion of a hip-hop influence is no accident. White may be well known as an aficionado of antique artists but it would surprise many to learn he is also a fan of rap and embraces it as an important outgrowth of the blues tradition. A few years ago he even teamed up with Jay-Z for a song, and at the time he declared: “I think Jay-Z is just incredible. The Black Album is one of the best albums of the decade.” Apart from rappers such as Jay-Z and RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan, he’s also produced an album by, of all people, Insane Clown Posse. Juggalos be damned – White refuses to be easily categorised, and he extends that privilege to numerous collaborators. Other notable people he has worked with include Loretta Lynn and Tom Jones, and he has produced two albums for Anne Murray. No pigeonholes there.
Jack White never wanted to be a solo artist. He was perfectly happy in The White Stripes and he frequently expressed his desire for the band to continue forever. This reviewer would have agreed to that wholeheartedly: The White Stripes are one of the few artists whose every album I have bought and enjoyed. Meg White’s erstwhile musical partner has been circumspect about the exact reasons for the band calling it quits but it is well known that Meg developed acute anxiety problems, forcing the cancellation of most of their 2007 tour. They have only played in public together one time since, when they appeared on Conan O’Brien’s show in 2009. Two years later they finally announced their break-up.
The official end of The White Stripes gave White the impetus he needed to make his first solo album and Blunderbuss appeared in early 2012. In an interview with The New York Times to promote it he was still missing his former bandmate: “I’d make a White Stripes record right now. I’d be in The White Stripes for the rest of my life. That band is the most challenging, important, fulfilling thing ever to happen to me. I wish it was still here.”
Blunderbuss was highly acclaimed and commercially successful, but for me it is nowhere near his best work. The songs were mostly composed on the fly in the studio and it shows. What that album did, however, is get White back on the road. During its promotional tour he decided to raise the level of difficulty by randomly alternating performances between two different sets of backing musicians. One was an all-female line-up dubbed The Peacocks – not Peahens? – and the all-male tag team was The Buzzards. None of them knew who would be playing on any given night until just before showtime.
The Blunderbuss tour gave him a pool of musicians he could trust and they comprise the backbone of the new album. For the most part White has kept them in their single-sex configurations, though occasionally one or two of them sneak into each other’s line-up. “Would You Fight For My Love?” is the one exception where all of the musicians play on the same track, drummers and bass players included. Happily, then, White has managed to fill the void of The White Stripes by forming two bands to carry out his vision and, like Dylan’s work with The Band, the writer and his co-conspirators are totally simpatico.
Another thing White and Dylan have in common is a distaste for over-thinking their art and hiding behind studio trickery. This album sounds so natural and unforced that on the first few listens I thought it might have been recorded completely live in the studio, much as Dylan did in his heyday. White himself believes that most of the best albums ever made were recorded in a couple of days. Others may quarrel with the spartan severity of such dogma but no one can argue with his results.
Lazaretto beguiles the listener with its oblique simplicity. Despite appearances, there is a lot going on under the surface and it is a much more considered work than its predecessor. Some reviewers complained about the lack of hooks and stompin’ riffs on Blunderbuss – never mind the fact that White eschews such things, as he prefers to focus on the song as a whole rather than reduce it down to its meanest parts. But there is no disputing that there are riffs aplenty this time.
“Alone in My Home” has a beautiful delicate piano and mandolin refrain that lingers like perfume, and the whirling dervish of a riff that drives “That Black Bat Licorice” evokes vaudeville demons cavorting in a cartoon Hades. There may not be any monster “Seven Nation Army” knock-offs, but that’s for White’s imitators anyway – and, no, I’m not buying into his feud with The Black Keys.
There are so many musical colours to enjoy on the album, whether it be the gorgeous country lilt of “Temporary Ground”, a song that uses tectonics as a metaphor for the seismic shifts in relationships, or the cheerful bar-room drawl of “Just One Drink”, or even the odd first single “High Ball Stepper”, an instrumental based around a simple-minded riff that would make Jimmy Page smile.
The lyrics, too, are nuanced and diverse. Sometimes poetic and tender, elsewhere easily cutting to the bone. Believers in a feminine divinity will appreciate this conversation with God in the title track: “She tells me every day, ‘Jack don’t you see? When I say nothing I say everything.’” God may be saying nothing out loud but She appears to be speaking to Jack through his music. Considerately, he also thanks Her in the album credits.
A “lazaretto” is a quarantine station for seafarers, with an etymology that goes back to “a leper colony administered by a Christian religious order … often called a lazar house, after the parable of Lazarus the beggar”.
Jack White may feel like he’s been in quarantine, but while recuperating from what ails him he’s spent his time profitably. He’s had a spiritual revival and – hallelujah! – like Lazarus, he’s up and dancing again.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 28, 2014 as " Red, White and blues".
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