Jack White seems to be in a weird life-place right now. As someone who regularly writes news stories about White, writing news stories about White isn’t much fun. If you’re inclined to build an image of someone’s inner life out of the scraps of information that go public, it’s easy to envision White as a sort of bitter half-hermit — a rich guy bursting with past glories, one who’s going through a nasty divorce and lashing out at his most immediate peers, one whose greatest joy seems to come from disappearing into his fascination with retro-kitsch effluvia. From a certain perspective, White’s Third Man headquarters look like his version of the Neverland Ranch, a 78-RPM vinyl-pressing booth standing in for a roller coaster. As someone who, not too long ago, watched in wonder as White stomped and preened and slithered across a Madison Square Garden stage, these developments feel like defeat. Less than a decade ago, White felt like the defining guitar hero of a generation that badly needed one, and now he seems like a half-faded star who’s built himself a fantasyland, fashioned it out of old-timey nicknacks, so that he doesn’t have to confront a modern world that he actively rejects. Now, to be clear: This image of White isn’t right; it’s just the story we might tell ourselves when an artist won’t let us all the way in. White’s new Lazaretto is a messy and anxious record, an album that radiates queasy angry vibes in plenty of directions. And if you look at it from a certain angle, that’s all it is, a fuck-this-world yawp. From another angle, though, it’s an absolutely badass collection of riffs and yelps. Both interpretations are perfectly valid, but you’ll probably enjoy Lazaretto a whole hell of a lot more if you take the latter perspective.
White’s last album Blunderbuss, his solo debut, felt more like a tossed-off lark than anything else. But that was before the divorce and the Black Keys spleen-venting and the metastasizing of the Record Store Day mentality. These days, if White gets any deeper into his whole dustbowl-dandy thing, he’s not going to tour anymore; he’ll be too busy robbing small-town banks with tommy guns and then speeding away in a Model-T. The first time I listened to Lazaretto, all I could hear was the persona, which isn’t even a particularly interesting persona. If you’re a white person under the age of 80, you can’t use the phrase “lawdy lawd” in any context without coming off affected as fuck, and White uses that phrase, by my count, one million times during opening track “Three Women.” Bits and pieces of Lazaretto remind me of mid-’00s Black Keys, and I know that’s not what White is going for right now. “Three Women” is straight-up Blues Hammer, both in its choogling lope and in its lyrical cocksmanship. “Just One Drink” aims for Stones and mostly ends up south of Silver Bullet Band. The arrangements are cluttered and sometimes overthought, with none of this stripped-down directness that helped make the White Stripes so compelling. It’s a short album but not a focused one, and if you’re remotely predisposed to rolling your eyes at White, you will become well-acquainted with the color of your top inner eyelid before the album is half-over.
And that’s not even getting into the lyrical content, which, from a certain perspective, is deep into midlife crisis territory. When White is yowling about his three women in different cities on the first song, he sounds like a divorced dad taking a 22-year-old bartender on a date somewhere where he knows he’ll run into his ex. It sounds sad. “Would You Fight For My Love?” is based around the idea that it’s the significant other’s job to keep a couple together, a resentment over the idea that he has to do any work at all: “It’s not enough that I love you / There’s all these things I have to prove to you.” And then there’s the these-kids-today harrumphing of “Entitlement”:”There are children today who are lied to / That the world is rightfully theirs / They can have what they want, whenever they want / They take like Caesar, and nobody cares.” A lazaretto, after all, is a leper colony, a place to lock away anyone with an infectious disease. “They put me down in the lazaretto, bored rotten, bored rotten,” White yips on the title track, and it’s easy to hear that as the cry of an outmoded rock star who doesn’t hear a place for himself in this cruel digital world.
With each listen, though, I find myself liking the album more, both from a lyrical and musical perspective. First, the lyrics have never been much of a window into White’s soul anyway. He’s pointed out that the narrator of “Three Women” can’t really be him, since he talks about using a digital photograph “to pick which one I like best.” White, of course, probably regards digital photographs the way vampires regard garlic and crosses. And while I have no doubt that bits of his personality and self-image are coming through in these lyrics, it’s presumptive, with am elusive figure like White, to think you know what he’s talking about. At this point, I’m more inclined to view his lyrics on Lazaretto as a grand act of self-criticism, an interrogation of his own worst impulses. After all, he spends the bulk of the album singing as an entitled dick of a husband, as the type who needs a high-five from someone whenever he thinks he’s done something great. But it’s probably not a coincidence that all this talk ends with a song called “Entitlement.” And while “Entitlement” is, at least in part, a song about These Kids And Their Damn Facetime, it’s just as easy to imagine it as a hard stare in the mirror. He ends the song like this: “Not one single person on god’s golden shore / Is entitled to one single thing / We don’t deserve a single damn thing.” Is that directed outward, or is he singing that to remind himself, to bring himself back down to earth? I think he’s singing about himself. All we can do is guess, and that’s my guess. He ends the album, a couple of songs later, with “Want And Able,” a simple and pretty song about the limits of desire and the need for perspective. It’s a sigh of relief, a moment of clarity to cap off an album that, at times, felt more like a tantrum.
As far as the music goes, while the jumped-up blues rock songs on Lazaretto don’t hit with the same impact as his White Stripes music, White has pushed his sound in some interesting directions here, and it sounds great more often than it doesn’t. The title track is a furious piece of badassery, an electric-shock of discordant guitar theatrics and defiant ball-kick screeches, one that makes lots of weird noises follows no previously discovered song-structure format. The instrumental “High Ball Stepper” takes a fired-up stoner-doom riff and makes a tense spaghetti-western score out of it. There’s a moment on “The Black Bat Liquorice” where White, singing about how much he hates the mysterious treat of the title, goes into fervent-yelp mode to say this: “I never liked it! I never will! Now let me say the same damn thing with the violin!” Someone in his band immediately follows that up with a mountain-freakout violin solo, one of many on the album. And if the faster songs benefit from those balls of violin venom, the slower ones gain a lot of power from backing singer Ruby Amanfu and fiddler/singer Lillie Mae Rische, who sounds uncannily like Emmylou Harris and whose mixed-down presence on “Temporary Ground” comes close to overwhelming White’s lead vocal. These are good songs, and they’re songs that nobody else could’ve written. If White needs his dusty hideaway to write songs like this, then let him have it.