Review: Jack White’s ‘Lazaretto’ is a Rorschach of The Soul

Jack White emerges from his Third Man lair with a captivating & challenging new collection.

Johnny Firecloudby Johnny Firecloud

True to mythology-conjuring form, Jack White’s sophomore solo album is the byproduct of a time-capsule collaboration with his 19 year-old self. Third Man Records’ chief pulled from his own stories, plays and poems penned two decades prior when scaling lyrics for the music to the follow-up to 2012’s Blunderbuss, shifting the spirit enough for the most diehard of fans to be enthrallingly thrown on Lazaretto, but threatening to be a stylistic Tower of Babel for the uninitiated. What exactly has Jack evolved into? A blues demon vinyl wizard? A hybrid of Willy Wonka and Orson Welles? A country evangelist dragging rock’s collective awareness kicking and screaming into the barn dance? Yes. All of it, yes. His latest collection is a complex and rich musical milestone in the life of the entrepreneurial kaleidoscope who emerged from that cracked and beloved peppermint candy.

If Hitchcock made a rock movie, the pulsing organ, bass and drum of Lazaretto’s welcome mat would serve a fine entrance theme. Blind Willie McTell’s respun “Three Women” sets off amid a wave of cymbal crashes, the drums a clean and bright vehicle accented by keys and slide guitar, with a deep underpinning bass. Torn at the heart between three women, the dilemma is reminiscent of Jack’s ultra-cocksman indecision over the Hamtramck yellow, Detroit brown and Southwest darkskin ladies in the White Stripes cover of McTell’s “Lord, Send Me an Angel,” though far more Southern Soul than strut-campy. To decide, he breaks out the digital camera to get a good run of comparative shots to see who’s the best “good woman to blow these blues away”. 

A whip-crack of sardonic funk with stomping urgency, the title track centers on a jutting riff, a hip-hop narcissist backhand that stands alongside White's most electrifying compositions. As on the rest of the album, the devil of details makes the most delicious subtleties, whether via a quick-shimmy vibrato or tumbling-lyric melodies which leap into the chorus with “When I say nothing… I say everything". Jack frames the solo, a stage-staggering fit of squealing goodness, as what he’d say in a conversation with God – and he says quite a mouthful. 

White’s vampirically captivating touring fiddler Lillie Mae Rische takes the mic on “Temporary Ground” to volley vocals with Jack, a country twang to match the hypnotically romantic slide guitar. The moonlit-weeping-willows charm shines through, despite White’s pondering on the idea that we’re drifting on an island through space, our faith left hanging by God, with just an “illusion of a home” to comfort us.

Jack has a knack for that sixth-sense, feel-it-in-your-knees intro-indication when a storm of a song is brewing, one that will translate to the stage with devastating power. Carla Azar’s percussive flurries shape the sinister charm of “Would You Fight For My Love,” its guitar-to-keys and back again volley reminiscent of White’s spastic triple duties onstage with the Stripes. Dean Fertita drives a little Dead Weather danger home on the strings, while our narrator laments love’s cruel conditions and unfulfilling provisions – a theme thoroughly established in White’s career-spanning lyrical thread.

As a fifth-track pivot for the album, “High Ball Stepper” will frustrate traditionalists. But between the grinding descent of the guitar and piano alongside Ruby Amanfu's howl woven with Lille Mae’s fiddle, this molten streak of mercury is a haunting little flare. A ghost in love drags sincerity from the plunky-sunshine piano of “Alone in My Home,” though maybe it’s more a form of escapism, given that Jack’s two marriages deep in divorce. “These stones that are thrown against my bones, break through,” he admits. “But they hurt less as times goes on,” he declares. “Alone I build my own home to be sure that nobody can touch me now.” 

He may vehemently disavow a literal connection to his lyrics, but there’s plenty of room for interpretive value throughout all of Lazaretto. It’s no mistake that White, meticulously self-aware in design as he is, has crafted an album that demands analysis at various angles under various lights both sonically and physically, nearly all drawing to an antagonizing female source. It doesn't help that he sat on the music for months before putting lyrics to it, a practice he doesn't recommend. The songs build largely on ideas of loneliness and self-separation, while the album’s title is defined as a quarantine for lepers. You do the math.

The modern-gluttony fatigue of “Entitlement” drops a little self-righteousness (“I can’t bring myself to take without penance or atonement or sweat from my brow”), or is it simply a moral compass? Before we can process the intentionally interpretive flexibility, the album’s true centerpiece haunts to life. A blasting Halloween-funk strut, “That Black Bat Licorice” is the only song on Lazaretto “that I really put in the album of my own personality,” White told NPR. It’s enough to make you want to slap the man with baby-blue gloves, because the song is goddamned magnificence. Spitfire rap-flow vocal delivery, dropping spastic wordplay flourishes around an aggressively angular instrumental frame and a blood-boiling hatred for that nasty black candy. It’s fun, it’s dangerous, attitude for days, and worth the record’s price all its own. “Now say the same damn thing with a violin,” he barks at Lillie Mae, who obliges before a closing threat. 

Lazaretto’s closer “Want and Able’ is White’s only solo recording endeavor on the record, overdubbing two of himself singing over an acoustic guitar and saloon piano framework. The track is the second of three total pieces, the first being “Effect and Cause,” the Stripes’ farewell track on Icky Thump. “When the third song will appear is anyone’s guess,” the Third Man quote teases, making the mystery that much more captivating. “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.” 

We want this to be about Meg, of course. But the mystique weighs more than the reality in the long run, and at Lazaretto’s conclusion it becomes clear that we’re holding merely a piece of a larger mechanism within Jack’s architecture; we’re supposed to see more Rorschach than mural. That mischievous charm we first dialed into, the untethered shredding blues maestro with a kindergarden heart is still there, yet only an arrow in Lazaretto’s quiver. This will spark dissatisfaction among casual listeners looking for an hour’s worth of squealing-freakout dirty blues anthems, but Jack has a much larger legacy in mind.