Jack White: Lazaretto

Jack White
(Third Man/Columbia)
3.5 out of 5 stars
Stream the album

When some young college professor gets the idea to teach a class on Jack White – and let’s be real, this reality isn’t that far off – they’re going to reserve a whole semester-long unit for Lazaretto. Maybe that sounds like a load of fanboy gushing, but make no mistake: On first impression, this is White’s least musically engaging album since anything pre-Elephant, a possible disappointment for anyone craving one unhinged guitar solo after another. But after a few more listens, the record – White’s second LP as a solo artist and forty-fifth (!) as producer – begins to function like his Nashville-based Third Man Records and novelties storefront: with each visit, one notices more strangely enticing details that reveal an understated genius similar to that of some literary treasure like the The Great Gatsby.

It’s almost worth breaking the album down line-by-line as you would that novel, because every little detail might be packed with deeper meaning. Consider the record’s alleged backstory: It was his longest production process to date (1.5 years), he conquered writer’s block by pulling characters and lyrics from one-page short stories and plays written after his first brush with love as a 19-year-old (half his current age of 38), and – in true legend-forging fashion – he destroyed the original works afterward.

Even more fascinating are his somewhat cryptic dedications in the liner notes to three women: Florence Green, the last-surviving WWI veteran when she died at 110 years old in 1992, Voltairine de Cleyre, a Michigan-bred anarchist and “Amazing” Grace Hopper, a WWII computer science pioneer who coined the term “debugging” by literally removing a moth from a computer to make it work. Given those, it would be absurd to assume that opening the disc with the Blind Willie McTell re-work “Three Women” is just a coincidence.

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White’s PR camp says (in a statement serviced to reviewers), “the songs have little to do with each other … standalone pieces, each envisioned as a ‘single’,” but there are thematic threads, particularly with regard to breaking free of isolation. Take the album title’s origin. Lazarettos are typically quarantine islands for lepers, which White indirectly references with the lyrics “Quarantined on the Isle of Man / and I’m trying to escape any way that I can.”He takes this further when, assisted by the spellbinding backup vocals of Nashville artist Lillie Mae Rische, he suggests on “Temporary Ground” that the Earth itself may be a drifting island in space, merely “an illusion of home,” its creativity stifled by selfish inhabitants. He lays blame on today’s youth and general apathy during “Entitlement” with the scathing accusation that the “children … take like Ceasar, and nobody cares.” Then there’s the overt title, “Alone in My Home,” where, again alongside Rische, the narrator claims he’s “becoming a ghost so nobody can know me,” a marked follow-up to the line “I’m getting better at becoming a ghost” on the Dead Weather-esque, Dean Fertita-enhanced “Would You Fight For My Love?”

Running with the blues tradition, White has built up a mythology for himself over the years, calling his ex-wife his sister, slipping odd, almost nonsensical blocks of poetry/prose into each album’s liner notes, essentially living as a wholly unknowable character like Stephen Colbert. And those latter two related declarations about “becoming a ghost” practically beg for psychoanalysis – an almost tragic plea for the listener to seek out his romantic inner essence – despite White and his PR’s insistences that these lyrics are in no way autobiographical, that “I” is an “anti-ubiquitous … useless entry point for the listener.”

Still, none of this critical analysis matters without the music functioning as the initial hook, which White cunningly pointed out in his May 20 interview with NPR’s Bob Boilen. “Obviously, if I went out and read these lyrics out loud, holding a piece of paper on a microphone with no music, that’s not going to have the kind of appeal it would have if I had this kind of drum beat, and this kind of melody to back it up,” White said. “I need those tricks to get you to pay attention to it. I’m fine with doing it; I’ll do whatever tricks are necessary in my job, to share something with somebody else.” Yet Lazaretto doesn’t grab attention with anything as sonically brash as the music of his other bands. There’re only two standout instances of his screaming, signature guitar improv, first on the title track amid a rap-influenced vocal delivery that resonates with the pointed aggression of Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha and, by strange coincidence, some distinctly Tom Morrello-esque axemanship. Then again on the heavily distorted instrumental “High Ball Stepper.” The 11 tracks are still packed with those “tricks,” but like the record’s subject matter, the occurrences are controlled, nuanced, or flawlessly smoothed out like the icing on a bakery-made birthday cake.

The bulk of that painstaking production is likely related to heavy outside collaboration with members of both his touring bands – the all-female Peaocks and all-male Buzzards– plus various Third Man associates. Rische – who “exemplifies freedom in all ways,” according to White in that same NPR interview – layers fiddle and soothing backup vocals on the twangy “Temporary Ground” and the piano-led “Alone in My Home” to create a lofty downhome feel. Ruby Amanfu sits in on quite a few cuts, too, but most effectively drives home the epicly marching, instantly catchy chorus of “Would You Fight For My Love?” which also gets some of its sinister, Dead Weather-esque flavor from Dean Fertita’s fretwork.

Amanfu likewise soars on “That Black Bat Licorice,” the only song “that I really put in the album of my own personality,” White told NPR. Which is interesting because, similar to “Lazaretto,” he delivers the lyrics in rap-attack mode, this time closer to the slam-poet style of Saul Williams. And while this aggressive approach as an instrumental element itself makes for the catchiest song in the collection, the hip-hop harp ultimately draws one’s attention back to the lyrics.

Within the span of about four minutes, White asserts this track as veritable high art by referencing Jack Chick’s controversial comics, the long-running TV detective series “Columbo,” the Brooklyn neighborhood of Dumbo, the elaborate Catholic funereal enshroudment castrum doloris and three specific philosophers, “Nietzsche, Freud and Horace,” who are apparently “good for the needy.” The sheer number of times one might need to use Google to understand those various terms and their (possible) relationships will be exceedingly frustrating for anyone accustomed to satisfying his or her attention span with only pedestrian pop hooks and recycled blues progressions. But for White, who won’t even allow his 8 and 6-year-old children to have cell phones, televisions or other screens at home, that’s doubtless intentional.

As his final ha-ha in that regard, he closes the record with “Want and Able.” It’s the only instance of White recording solo – using overdubs to splice his own guitar, piano and voice (several times over) – and is riddled with prosaic wordplay that swaps verbs for nouns and vice versa. The song’s lasting impression of mysteriousness is bolstered by the PR tidbit that this is the second tune in a trilogy following “Effect and Cause,” the final cut on the White Stripes’ 2007 farewell record Icky Thump. The press release also taunts, “When the third song will appear is anyone’s guess,” further adding to the ambiguity of White’s final lines, “Want and Able / Are two different things / One is desire, and the other is the means / Like I want to see you, lie next to you / And touch you in my dreams / But that’s not possible / Something simply will not let me.”

Ultimately, without the abundance of the fitful, electrified abandon that permeated White’s past records – plus the fact that this album is clearly just another tiny sliver of the lexicon that may someday reveal his true scheme – some fans may feel moored on a lazaretto of dissatisfaction. Yet in the meantime, at the very least, Lazaretto is a damn catchy segue spot to await the arrival of the next intricate puzzle piece.