First Impressions: Jack White, “Lazaretto”

jw3For a guy who dresses like a Depression-era dandy and frequently opines about the virtues of analog recording equipment and vinyl sound, Jack White is about the furthest thing from a purist. On Lazaretto, he offers up a co-write with Blind Willie McTell and dresses nearly every song in honky-tonk fiddle, yet there’s not a moment on the album that sounds much at all like traditional country or blues. Instead, it sounds very much like a Jack White album—unmistakably so, in fact, as the tight rhythms, squalling guitars, cool electric pianos, and bursts of pure noise bear witness to one of rock’s most distinctive auteurs. He may work with the building blocks of traditional American song, but from those blocks he makes something that’s curiously out of time and defiantly idiosyncratic—the work of a postmodern man who just happens to be in love with the past but has no particular interest in recreating it.

And, for as of-a-piece as this is with his past work—including Blunderbuss, his proper solo debut—he has no particular interest in recreating his own past, either; this record has a character distinct from the last LP, and altogether different from his work with The White Stripes. Compared to Blunderbuss—a relatively subdued, largely acoustic affair, emphasizing texture and tunefulness over grit or swing—this is a pretty savage rock and roll album, sounding much more unhinged, both musically and emotionally. While Blunderbuss gave the vibe that White was nursing his wounds—possibly following his divorce, but really, what does it matter?—this one explicitly rages against isolation and alienation, and there’s something exhilarating in its savagery, angst, and humor, mixed together at different times and in unequal measure.

If all of that makes Lazaretto sound basically like a White Stripes album, not so fast: It is a telling thing indeed that, for all the positive press the album has generated, the most significant effect of White’s solo career seems to be expanding our collective appreciation for Meg White, whose minimalist drumming (it is becoming more and more clear) was the thing that held Jack to earth, preventing him from going too far out there with endless solos and pure technique, but also the element of anarchy that made the Stripes’ records so appealingly chaotic, gave them such wild swing. Neither of White’s solo albums pack quite as much mayhem as he was able to muster with Meg; even when he lets loose and gets loud, which he does plenty here (pretty much the entire first half of the album, in fact), it’s not quite as unpredictable or as dangerous as White Blood Cells or Elephant; it always sounds like he’s very deliberately piecing together a puzzle, each component held carefully in its place within the broader arrangement, everything casually highlighting what a gifted musician and composer he really is.

Whether you hear that as a flaw in Lazaretto or simply a characteristic of it depends on your willingness to move on from the Stripes and engage White on this current plane—and the decision to do so offers ample reward: This record pulls out most of the tricks from his playbook—including country dust-ups, blues jams, rock riffing, and a sepia-toned saloon song—but arranges them in a way that’s not quite like any of his records; it has a different vibe than anything he’s done, new wrinkles in familiar sounds—and that’s a satisfying thing indeed.

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