Jack White - Lazaretto

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.

Lazaretto is out 6/10 on Third Man/Columbia. Stream it here.

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Comments (41)
  1. I hate when song lyrics get in the way of my social media status.

  2. i haven’t heard this record yet (other than the two singles) and i already love it. i can’t wait to listen to it for a month. thanks, tom, for a great review. and, jack, if you read this in your next life, find my if you need a biographer/sex slave.

  3. Desperately awaiting this record to drop. Despite it being a safe record by Jack White standards, Blunderbuss was easily my 2012 AOTY.

  4. Pretentious wanker. No one needs that many statues.

  5. Lazaretto kinda sounds like a Rage Against the Machine song

    • That’s EXACTLY what I was thinking. Replace Jack White’s voice with Zack de la Rocha’s, and you’ve got the structure and cadence of a classic Rage track, including a badass Tom Morello-style guitar solo. All it’s missing is a “whisper building to a scream” vocal around the breakdown at the 2:00 mark. That, and get rid of the violins near the end.

  6. This album is amazing, when Three Women starts it off and runs it into Lazaretto, the hotel room is already trashed. I can’t believe no one had sung the blues like him before this!!

  7. Great review. I found myself agreeing with you entirely Tom until you made the turnaround about how you’ve started to like it. Then again, that could be just because I’ve only listened once. To me the compelling moments are the funhouse mirror Zeppelin songs (Lazaretto, Would You Fight For My Love?, High Ball Stepper, That Black Bat Licorice) and everything else either falls flat or is just kind of annoying. I’m definitely getting more of a ranting sadly fading icon vibe from this than a fascinating and messy self-critique, but I’ll listen again.

    • “The funhouse mirror Zeppelin songs” is a great way to put that, and I agree. Those are the standouts and the sort of pastiche country songs pull the album down.

      With that said, I’ve only listened a few times and those songs might reveal themselves to me to be beautiful over time. We’ll see!

  8. Would You Fight For My Love? just earned pre-order status

  9. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

    • Kids, here’s a perfect example of why stopping reading over a sentence you don’t like and not taking in the whole article is dumb. Posting about it, only moreso.

  10. Pssh, sounds like a watered down version of The White Stripes.

  11. It seems as if Jack White left his musical “soul” in Detroit, and is now trying to replace it with his new Nashville sound. Frequently, it comes off as more pedestrian than avant-garde.

    • Didn’t think of that, that’s a very interesting point. I just don’t think he does Hank Williams as well as he does the MC5/Stooges in general.

      • Its pure Mississippi Delta Blues with a little Dylan/Stooges thrown in for added measure. Think it drowns out the twang but see your concern. He’s never shied away from the country violin though. Nothing new going on here but its a fun throwback to some Exile on Main love…which reconfirms the fact that this guy need sto produce a Stones album before it gets too late.

        • Exile on Main St is one of my favorite albums of all time, and I don’t hear that all that much here, but I’ll check again. Him producing a Stones album would be great, feel like their latter day stuff is really held back by how polished it sounds.

        • It’s been too late for 30 years.

  12. Ruby Amanfu doesn’t sing on “Temporary Ground” — that’s Lillie Mae Rische. Super well-researched evaluation.

  13. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

    • I would argue that you’re not doing a full evaluation or analysis of a given work of art unless you take into consideration the life and mindset of the artist.

  14. 1. The Black Bat Licorice is ridiculous.

    2. While I prefer my Jack White music from the garage, I do still enjoy “Country” Jack. But here’s the thing – he seems like kind of a restless guy. So now that we have two very big-Nashville sounding solo albums, could we see a more stripped down, aggressive outing next time? I hope so, but I’m worried the Dead Weather has exclusive rights on that Jack White now.

    Overall I like this, but, man, if only there was more funhouse mirror Zeppelin songs (to borrow the phrase) this could have been one of his best.

  15. Suffers from the exact same problems as Blunderbuss imo. A decent number of good but not great songs, surrounded by middle of the road boring ones. With Blunderbuss I was pretty excited because I liked that he was going in a new direction and figured it would be a stepping stone to bigger and better work down the road, but this unfortunately sounds like a second rate Blunderbuss to my ears and I doubt I’ll find my self coming back to it very often at all.

  16. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  17. Just saw Jack and crew in Shreveport, Louisiana last night. The new stuff sounded great in the otherwise White Stripes-heavy setlist.

  18. Jack White is one of the few contemporary musicians who has already reached legend status, but it’s hard to think of anyone else in that group who has such a patchy catalogue. He’s recorded a bunch of classic songs, but for each one of them, there’s several uninteresting, unfinished-sounding or awkward tracks. Almost every great artist creatively tanks after a run of great LP’s, but to my ears, most of Jack White’s output has been frustratingly inconsistent from the start. Still, his best stuff blows almost everyone else out of the water.

    • I don’t know. I’ll take pretty much every song on the first five Stripes albums.

    • The first three white stripes albums are completely solid all the way through. De Stijl in particular, is a perfect album IMO.

  19. There is an error in this story. The singer on “Temporary Ground” is NOT Ruby Amanfu, but Lily Mae (who also plays fiddle on the song). She didn’t want to do any singing on the album but Jack convinced her to because he loved her voice so much.

  20. The lack of focus is what made Blunderbuss slightly unlikeable to me, despite having a handful of great songs, and it sounds like Lazaretto will be pretty much the same. I dunno, I guess I just like my Jack White with partners. I’d love for the Raconteurs to reunite.
    My main point, though: Isn’t that album art just the worst? I haven’t heard anybody else say it, which boggles me. The rock posturing is so ridiculous.

    • I saw the cover shot and pictured him clicking through the photoshoot (or more probably, given his retro inclinations, flipping through contact sheets with a grease pencil) and announcing “that’s the one!”. Really? But even though it’s a silly picture, somehow he still looks badass (but then he always looks badass).

    • yeah I think that’s the problem. his past projects have always had guiding themes, these solo albums are just creatively adrift.

  21. The worst type of reviews are the ones where the writer becomes obsessed with the personality behind the music and glosses over the actual music.

  22. The lyrics are self critical and reflective, as has White’s lyrics have always been. This album even more so, because of the Lazaretto thing. White has had multiple failed relationships as we all know and this seriously affects his outlook on life, the lyric, “I’m becoming a ghost so nobody can love me” is one of the saddest lyrics I’ve ever heard. And in “That Black Bat Licorice” if you want to analyze his lyrics you could say he’s critical about the amount of blues he’s done. In interviews he’s said that he’s tired of playing guitar and wants to play stuff on accordion, or literally anything that’s around him, look at Get Behind me Satan or Blunderbuss. This review is fine, because it’s your opinion but the tabloid attitude bugged me a bit. The music on this album is incredible, melodically, songs like “Temporary Ground” and “I Think I Found the Culprit” showcase something so interesting that to even mention the black keys is dismissive, since this is meant to be a review of the album. Also, Ruby Amanfu does not sing on this album at all, all female backing is done by Lillie Mae. This is a review, and after reading it twice, I have no idea how you feel about the album, Tom. You bounce between saying it sounds like a tantrum, and that it’s great, I just wanna know how you liked it.
    On a side note, this album is spectacular, dark, and highly replayable. But I loved all parts of Blunderbuss.

  23. I pretty much had the same reaction as Jimmy Fallon when I saw everything that went into this record (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IaFUIajeAXA). Jack White has always been someone who loves finding the simple pleasures in music. His biggest contributions have been showing us that there is always another way to experience. In this case it is through his Ultra LP, but even in the past he has shown his creativity in presentation of music and how easy it can be to make cool sounds. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5kykHLc20gc (excerpt from It Might Get Loud)

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