Music Reviews

Jack White Lazaretto

(Third Man) Rating - 7/10

Asked in a recent Rolling Stone interview about his alleged “woman problem,” Jack White counters that he has “worked with more women than anyone you’ll ever meet” and—now here’s the kicker—dismissively and offensively adds “that chick who wrote that article — and I say chick on purpose” can’t differentiate between Jack White and the characters in his song.

Those quotes ring especially powerful in light of Lazaretto’s opener Three Women, which begins with the lyrics “I’ve got three women/red, blonde, and brunette.” Character or not, that the song ends with White/his character proclaiming “Yeah, I know what you're thinking/What gives you the right?/Well, these women must be getting something/Cause they come and see me every night” does not bode well for White; it reads instead as the first proud and self-aware declaration of entitlement, a theme that runs throughout the album. Never stronger than on Entitlement, a sort of thesis for the album. In that song, a country crooner with delicate acoustic guitar and charming piano flourishes that contrasts markedly with the rock ‘n’ roll vibe of Three Women, White (or, again, his character) suggests that nobody will allow him what he has earned despite the fact that kids today have it easy and that “they cheated somehow.” At conclusion, it’s established that “Not a one single person on God's golden shore/is entitled to one single thing.”

On the title track, White had this to say: “This was a rhyme about the braggadocio of some hip-hop lyrics — the bragging about oneself in hip-hop music. The character who's singing this song is bragging about himself, but he's actually bragging about real things he's actually accomplished and real things that he actually does, not imaginary things or things he would like to do." This is a curious statement: on one hand, it creates another character for the song that distances White from his first-person lyrics; on the other, the song ends with the lyrics “I’m so Detroit, I make it rise from all the ashes,” which is about as personal as it gets and suggests that White is putting himself above the rappers who create first-person personas with a brag of his own. It’s a confusing message in the debate about first-person personas, but it’s worth noting that White’s almost-collaborator and rap superstar Kanye West found it in himself to say “I’m so self-conscious/that’s why you always see me with at least one of my watches” on his first album, and while White does not call himself a God, his braggadocio and blamelessness throughout the album rivals that of anyone in hip-hop.

This kind of reflexive scapegoating and self-conscious mythmaking permeates the album. I Think I Found The Culprit paints a picture of identical, unmoving birds sitting together on a windowsill before one is arbitrarily picked on. The closing song, Want and Able, is perhaps White’s most personal song yet, and the double-tracked closing stanza, “Now, Want and Able are two different things/One is desire, and the other is the means/Like I wanna hold you, and see you, and feel you in my dreams/But that's not possible, something simply will not let me” acknowledges confusion while simultaneously shifting blame, particularly if taken in context with songs like Entitlement and Three Women.

Whatever you make of these lyrics—stories and nothing more, pure egocentricity or confessions, veiled self-doubt and vulnerability—they make for quite a listen, as White’s lines seem longer than normal, as if emphasizing the confrontational, dramatic nature of the lyrics and harshness of the images. And when was the last time the need to discuss White’s lyrics was felt? That alone suggests a growth, or at least a change, in songwriting and style.

Indeed, the songs that make up Lazaretto are the most diverse on a White album since Get Behind Me Satan, and even more impressively, the songs themselves could stand alongside those on Icky Thump and Consolers of the Lonely thanks to the wonderful arrangements. Would You Fight For My Love?, the album’s longest song (at 4:08) and easily White’s best work yet as a solo artist opens with African drums, unlike anything in the man’s discography before taking a Raconteurs-esque turn with a grand piano riff and haunting backing vocals (both courtesy of Olivia Jean). The lyrics showcase a more vulnerable and direct White, and the stomping guitar riff contrasts brilliantly with the song’s piano track. Temporary Ground, with its percussion, vocal duet, and lead fiddle with delicate acoustic guitar and piano accompaniment, is as good a country song as White has ever written—even if it isn’t quite the quick, simple, poppy fun of Hotel Yorba. Alone In My Home is simultaneously tender and painful, while Just One Drink sounds like a strong outtake from the De Stijl era redone with a bigger band.

But versatility reigns as king. The title track’s bridge veers toward Mississippi Delta Blues, only to return to the verse riff with a fiddle. Despite the big country moments, though, there is enough rock on just a couple of numbers to satisfy. High Ball Stepper is a strong instrumental showcase for White’s guitar skills, while Black Bat Licorice sees White spit lyrics like he does for his numbers with The Dead Weather behind bigger riffs, and even the mellowest of these songs are not without touches of the first incarnation of Jack White that many of us will always favor.

Of course, Lazaretto, for all the growth it shows from Blunderbuss, could never be as good as the work that White rattled off from roughly 2000’s De Stijl to 2005’s Get Behind Me Satan. In six years, he and Meg White released four genuinely great albums, and there was one more very good one on each side. These solo albums give White a chance to open up his sound, to work with new musicians and try new arrangements, to diversify, and to play with song structure. But the bipolar extremes, the shifts from tender and loving to furious that made White Blood Cells and Elephant such brilliant, timeless records is necessarily going to regress with these new developments. The biggest pleasure in White’s music—be it with Meg or with the Raconteurs and Dead Weather—has always been his monstrous riffs and screeching, maniacal solos, and while the well hasn’t (and may never) run dry on those, it’s unfair to expect a songwriter approaching 40 to churn out Hello Operators, Offend in Every Ways, and Ball and Biscuits on a regular basis. That may be the White many of us want, but the White we have now is a different beast, the fascinating, ambitious songwriter that masterminded the great Consolers of the Lonely and penned Carolina Drama. He hasn’t reached those heights again—runtimes are much too short for that—but on Lazaretto’s promise, he very well might, and that’s equally exciting. Just try to tune out the sexism and disrespect along the way.

(Note: Many may notice that I gave Blunderbuss the same score. As such, I'd like to clarify that Blunderbuss is a "low 7" (and today, I would likely rate it a 6); Lazaretto is a "high 7," and that's with something docked off for questionable lyrical content).