Review of Lazaretto by Jack White

Jack White’s second solo album, Lazaretto, defies the sophomore album curse, as the songs showcase the talent and range for which he is known, as well as the indie, garage, country-and-blues infused rock that is his oeuvre. Lazaretto was released on June 10, 2014 and set a vinyl sales record of 40,000 copies sold in its first week. The album is the follow-up to White’s first solo venture, Blunderbuss, the Grammy-nominated album that fans had longed for after experiencing his music with the bands The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and The Dead Weather.

The vinyl version, carrying the label “Ultra LP”, includes a number of extras that the digital version does not, and although some may see the extras as gimmicky, White is known for being innovative and deeply invested in the art of music, which seems to be where these tricks come from.  Some of these special touches are firsts in record making. For example, it is the first record to have an “under label groove,” a song that is pressed under the label, which plays, albeit roughly, through the label. Additionally, the song “Just One Drink” offers listeners the choice of an acoustic or an electric version that then come together in the middle of the song. Lazaretto is also the first LP to include a hologram in the “dead wax” on the Side 1; the listener can see a hologram of an angel (to echo the album cover) when looking at the right angle. It is also the first record to have different finishes – Side 1 is shiny, and Side 2 has a matte finish – and is the first record to have at least one portion that plays in each of the three LP speeds (33 1/3, 45, and 78).  Also included are locked grooves on the outer edges of each side, and Side 1 starts on the inside and plays outward.

The digital track / iTunes listing (tracks 8 and 9 are reversed on the vinyl version):

(Vinyl Side 1)

1.    “Three Women”

2.    “Lazaretto”

3.    “Temporary Ground”

  1.  “Would You Fight for My Love?”
  2.  “High Ball Stepper”

(Vinyl Side 2)

6.     “Just One Drink”

  1.  “Alone in My Home”
  2.  “Entitlement”
  3.  “That Black Bat Licorice”
  4.   “I Think I Found the Culprit”
  5.   “Want and Able”

White opens Lazaretto with “Three Women,” a track that boasts of having three women, “red, a blonde, and brunette,” an ego maneuver that gives a nod to the tradition of bragging in rap and hip-hop.  Aware that he is arrogant, the speaker notes that the listener might ask, “what gives me the right”; his answer is that “Well, these women must be getting something / ‘Cause they come see me every night.”

White continues with this theme of braggadocio in track two, “Lazaretto,” although the speaker boasts of mundane things such as having blue veins and being able to “dig ditches like the best of ’em” before climaxing with the boast that “I’m so Detroit, I make it rise from the ashes.”  This track sounds a fiddle section, blustering guitar licks, and even Atari noises, which create a collage of sound that highlights the pain of being isolated and the hope of a phoenix-like rebirth. This title track establishes the theme of isolation, as a “lazaretto” is a quarantine hospital.

“Temporary Ground,” the third track, comments on emotional paralysis, referencing the feeling of “Moving without motion / Screaming without sound.” The song may most specifically address artistic paralysis, as White writes, “The old explorers had it easy / They discovered nothing new / But returned on home with answers / Of sad existent clues.” True originality may be impossible for today’s artists, but the artistic process is one of piecing together, in one’s own way, old influences and past music, and White achieves this in Lazaretto.

Like any good bluesy album, Lazaretto features obligatory songs about unrequited love. In “Would You Fight for my Love?” (track 4), White shows the vulnerabilities of both sides of a relationship; while one is afraid of being hurt, the other needs to let the speaker in, emotionally. He sings, “But I can’t kiss you ’til you lift up your chin / You have to want to stop being alone.” Again, White places this speaker in the figurative lazaretto, as he is isolated from the one he wants the most, a problem that seems unsolvable as long as both parties have their guards up.

Track five, “High Ball Stepper” is somewhat of a classic/psychedelic rock instrumental with crunching guitar alternating with discordant, clunky piano solos and fiddle that sounds like high-pitched, half-howling vocals. White plays with distortion and feedback in this recording, which adds grit to the song rather than distracting the listener.

White returns to the subject of unrequired love in the sixth track, “Just One Drink.”  The Jack White twist in the lyrics comes when the speaker “drink[s] gasoline,” perhaps a more fitting beverage than whiskey for someone who agonizes over the love of someone who “stares at the ceiling” and seems to be “growing colder / as I get older and older.”  He is older and wiser, not experiencing unreturned love as a young, naïve infatuation, but someone who can sense the nuances of another’s moods and unspoken feelings.  The song puts the listener inside a roadhouse, with its fiddle and honky-tonk piano riffs, but this is White’s roadhouse, so the effect is a musical mélange that one might call “hard country,” as gripping guitar licks pervade the song as well.

“Alone in My Home,” the seventh track, directly echoes the dark tone that is the common thread of the album. White declares that he is “alone in [his] home” and is “becoming a ghost . . . / so nobody can know” him. The music of the song belies this theme, however, as its cheerful and sprightly piano-driven melody and happy-go-lucky rhythms are listener-friendly and engaging.  The tension between form and content makes the loneliness all the more compelling.

Track eight, “Entitlement,” is perhaps the most fun song lyrically, as White ponders (and plays with) the right to feel entitled. He asks, “In a time when everyone feels entitled / Why can’t I feel entitled, too?” and adds that “I can’t bring myself to take without penance / or atonement or sweat from my brow.” Ironically, these declarations suggest that the speaker does, in fact, feel entitled, as he complains that whenever he is doing as he pleases, someone “cuts [him] down” and he feels that he feels he’s “been cheated.” Entitlement occupies a great deal of discussion about American culture, but the irony that White brings forth suggests the hypocrisy of any generation or person protesting entitlement and wishing they “could feel entitled, too,” when most people in our culture do carry a sense of entitlement. He ends the song saying that “Not a one single person on God’s golden shore / Is entitled to one single thing / We don’t deserve a single damn thing.”  This dark turn suggests the maturity of White as a 38-year-old songwriter whose life experiences have brought him a wiser perspective.

White foregrounds gritty, raunchy guitar in track nine, “That Black Bat Licorice,” a song that again references the lazaretto theme of isolation. He sings, “I fantasize about the hospital / The army, asylum, confinement, in prison /Any place where there’s a time to clear my vision.”  The song is another in which the speaker boasts about himself; this time, he “play[s] dumb like Columbo,” the television character who other characters generally misunderstood and underestimated.  Additionally, one has to be intrigued by a songwriter who uses the word “avuncular” and references “Nietzsche, Freud, and Horace.”

“I Think I Found the Culprit,” track ten, offers the hard country feel with steel guitar, piano, and raw lead guitar. Thematically, the song approaches isolation differently; this time, the speaker is on the offensive, saying that “birds of a feather may lay together / but the uglier one is always under the gun.” Even as part of a couple, he has feelings of inferiority that create emotional estrangement.

Lazaretto closes with “Want and Able,” in which Want and Able are characters in a fable, until White ends it with the moral of the story: Want is desire, and the Able “is the means,” and although he wants to be with the one he wants, “that’s not possible, something simply will not let [him].” While this is quiet song is not a standout, it does close the album with the accepted despair brought on by loneliness and isolation.

Overall, the album comes in at just over 39 minutes but seems dense in its exploration of music and themes that reinforce each other in an intriguing mix of musical genres.  The common thread of isolation suggests that White is working through the emotional baggage of his very public divorce from Karen Elson. One can only expect that White will continue to push boundaries by fusing blues, country, rock, psychedelic rock into a garage indie sound that is his trademark. Ultimately, how the album is perceived may be less important than its presence on the continuum that is the work of one of the most original musicians working today.

Overall rating: 9/10

 

Tracey K. Parker is a college English instructor who earned her PhD from the University of Arkansas. The focus of her research is popular culture in literature. She also has a journalism degree from the University of Missouri and is an avid reader and published writer.
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