Left Alone to His Own Devices
Jack White’s second solo album, Lazaretto, is upon us. It is not Blunderbuss, Part Two (The Reblundering?), and anyone expecting more of the same from Jack White in any context may have missed the point. Whether it was the steady, continuing evolution of The White Stripes, the dark and moody crunch of The Dead Weather, or the jam-ready rock of The Raconteurs, White changes things up at every turn. When left to his own devices, his sound becomes simultaneously more concentrated and more expansive. Despite taking authorial lead, he invites more collaboration in the form of guest artists and his two backing bands, The Buzzards and The Peacocks. He experiments, he stretches and he surprises, giving little care to style or genre boundaries. In another artist’s hands the variety accomplished on Blunderbuss would have felt unfocused and jarring. Instead, White found thematic continuity and made it exciting. So what of Lazaretto?
Perhaps to the chagrin of some fans, White challenges their expectations and follows his own interests. The majority of the album indicates it’s only a matter of time before he makes a country album, but he either can’t or won’t shake the blues-rock on which he built his career. The most electric moments of the album are the ones that share traits with this earlier style. The strutting funk of the title track, the fuzzed-out guitar swagger on “High Ball Stepper,” or the jaunty frustration of “That Black Bat Licorice” are traits of White’s past, but he spends most of his time purusing porch-swing twang on ballads “Temporary Ground,” “Alone in My Home” and “Entitlement.” He also has honky-tonk fun with “Three Women” and “Just One Drink.” There’s a certain strain of Americana that attracts him, and he goes after it in its purest form. His enthusiasm for this niche sound cannot be ignored, as he delights in its details — fiddle, mandolin, pedal steel guitar, and the accompaniment of sweet-voiced singer Lillie Mae Rische.
Sound aside, White’s chosen theme this time around is isolation, self-imposed or otherwise. He’s discussed in interviews an attraction to being put away in a lazaretto, finding a certain solace in being alone. On both “Would You Fight for My Love?” and “Alone in My Home” he speaks of “becoming a ghost,” fading into the background and avoiding the society of others. If there’s any question of why, “Entitlement” pulls no punches:
“Every time I’m doing what I want to / Somebody comes and tells me it’s wrong / Whenever I’m doing just as I please / Somebody cuts me down to my knees”
It’s hard to imagine someone who controls every last bit of his professional life feeling so persecuted, but he fights back immediately with “That Black Bat Licorice.” Being told “behave yourself” in the refrain, he responds, “I have to spit it out / Whatever’s in my mouth.” These lines bring to mind his controversial comments made in recent interviews. If anything, White has a greater sense of self-awareness than most artists, and had his responses ready-made. Like him or not, love his work or not, with Lazaretto Jack White remains true to himself, preferring to pursue his own curiosities than fulfill anyone else’s expectations.