Who can blame Jack White for all his playing, creating, curating, and refurbishing? An increasing number of people are interested in the history of pre-WWII American music; there are enough of them, anyway, that the recent New York Times Magazine cover story about blues legends Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas wasn’t that out of the ordinary. When White undertakes something like the Paramount Records Wonder-Cabinet (an 800-song archival project featuring everyone from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Patton and Son House), his dream for the preservation of such music seems as necessary as it does purist.
The acceleration of music production, including the unfathomable swell of the untold thousands of SoundCloud users, is leaving even the most historic music in the figurative and literal dust. Lazaretto, White’s self-produced second solo album, isn’t that old-timey. And maybe he doesn’t mean to inspire the discussion he does, but the album has the distinct quality of being of an earlier time. That’s fine considering the lifetime of study behind the music. Based on his work with The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather, and now his solo material (not to mention his Third Man stunts or the dozens of albums he’s produced), it’s frank that he’s an obsessive. As an 11-song, 39-minute distillation of his fascination, Lazaretto works more or less as well as 2012’s Blunderbuss, his solo debut.
Some of the electric numbers here, like “Just One Drink”, are relatively subdued, while acoustic-oriented songs like “I Think I Found the Culprit” get beefed up eventually. But Lazaretto can be neatly divided into electrics and acoustics, or side A and side B, respectively. For the first time in White’s performing career, though, the second group is more representative of the record as a whole and more crucial to its success. White lives in Tennessee now, and taking into account his arena-stomp pedigree and the history of his adopted home, the term “alt country” has rarely been more appropriate. “Temporary Ground”, “Alone in My Home”, and “Entitlement” are as solid in composition as the songs of a low-key indie type like Doug Paisley. White has long since proven his producer’s touch when it comes to delicate music, and that skillfulness continues to pay dividends for him. On Lazaretto, more so than Blunderbuss, gentle instruments like fiddle, piano, and pedal steel complement the spaciousness of his singing and playing. (Surprisingly, White reenlisted some, but nowhere near all, of the session men and women who played on Blunderbuss.)
Still, the thrills of this album are the booming riffs, solos, and other rollicking instrumentation. The exhilaration of opener “Three Women”, which features White interpolating Blind Willie McTell’s “Broke Down Engine Blues”, compares to the title track opener of the Stripes’ Icky Thump. It’s a neck-snapping reminder that nothing compares to Jack White’s riffs, or even his tone. His technique is also one reason the burning “High Ball Stepper” works as an instrumental single. There’s mandolin and piano on some of the bigger sounding songs here, too, and White makes their presence especially known. In fact, on “That Black Bat Licorice”, he shouts out the violin in anticipation of the ensuing solo.
It’s easy to get the feeling that White will never make a bad record. His formative years as a Catholic upholsterer in Detroit taught him discipline, and many of his defining tics seem ingrained in his DNA. But the creative process is rarely painless. Lasting a year and a half, Lazaretto was the longest production process in White’s 15-year career. Now 38 and twice divorced, he mitigated writer’s block by excavating short stories and plays he wrote when he was 19. Finally, he threw out most of the materials after he was done culling from them, so now Lazaretto is just about all we have.
That shouldn’t be too disappointing for anyone besides White’s biographers. Lyrics might not be White’s strong suit, but he’s reliably himself on the mic here. On the title song, his flow — yes, his flow, meaning that he more or less raps — is so tangled that I didn’t notice the bilingual mix at first (“Yo trabajo duro/ Como en madera y yeso,” he sings in Spanish, which roughly translates to “I work hard/ Like in wood and plaster”). Thankfully, it recalls the indie rock snarl of his younger years, and the energy of his delivery drives the song as much as its burbling riffs. The verbiage continues on “That Black Bat Licorice”, where he uses the word avuncular and name-drops the likes of Nietzsche, Freud, and Horus.
Themes of isolation abound on Lazaretto, and White relays them with the poise that made Beck’s more straight-faced Morning Phase a success earlier this year. While the first half of the album is greasy in the Southern rock sense, the second is greasy because, well, White is singing about staying inside, and it doesn’t seem like he feels the responsibility to bathe. The record works when it’s personal, too, although that’s a relative term when talking about White. “I’m getting better at becoming a ghost,” he sings on “Would You Fight for My Love?”, and he echoes the sentiment elsewhere on “Alone in My Home”, probably the closest thing Lazaretto has to a “Love Interruption”, the Blunderbuss duet that would be covered on The Voice.
One of the best things Lazaretto has going for it, though, is its lack of self-seriousness. On “Entitlement”, White, as a rich and famous dude, takes a chance and sings in the first person in spite of himself: “‘Stop what you’re doing and get back in line/ I hear this from people all the time.” But there are goofy lyrics, too, and they keep the album lighthearted. “Who is the who tellin’ who what to do?” goes the hook on “Want and Able”, a Charmin-soft lullaby about desire versus ability. All told, some of these songs are appealing because Jack White, who’s getting a little older and a little wiser, is singing them. On the other hand, some (“Alone in My Home”, for instance) might be fairly popular because of our culture’s taste for offbeat relatability.
The chart success of Lazaretto, however, won’t matter much in the end. White will keep doing what he’s doing, and his boldness will continue to be purposeful. He’ll have something special planned for next month, something even bigger. He’ll seal his reputation as a forward-thinking crate-digger by flying to the moon (yes, that one) to record a cover of Son House’s “Grinnin’ in Your Face”. He’ll press it to vinyl on the spot, and Third Man Records will be more famous than Jesus, and just like Lazaretto, the single will still be well-meaning and great-sounding. And then it will be ours.
Essential Tracks: “Three Women”, “Lazaretto”, and “Alone in My Home”