It’s been awhile since I’ve been on board the Jack White train. It’s not that I’ve ever disliked him, my interest in his stuff just seems to be on a sine wave that moves incidentally with his releases. As soon as I heard Get Behind Me, Satan, I collected all the White Stripes albums I could (save their self-titled debut) and followed them until the high point they went out on, Icky Thump. Both Raconteurs’ albums I couldn’t get enough of, and I dug a couple of cuts from the Dead Weather’s two LPs, but that was about it. I was sort of ready to close the Jack White chapter for awhile. When White’s first actual solo album, Blunderbuss, came out, I did pick it up because I knew it would be something that I’d want eventually, but at the time I never really was able to give it the time of day, and that still colours my perception of it (apart from the infectious “Love Interruption”). I have no doubt that will change in the very near future, however, as I have listened to Lazaretto, and it is fantastic.
The very first impression I get upon listening to this album is that White is super happy to be free of the restraints that he had created for himself in the White Stripes. It was Meg on Drums and Jack playing one, maybe two other instruments over top. When Lazaretto starts with “Three Women”, he throws everything down on the table and molds it into a frenetic whole, over the skeleton of a straight-up blues song, his stock-in-trade since debuting. The heavily distorted organ that delivers the riff with an extended time signature sets the tone, as the distortion on this album is such that it in no mean feat to identify the instrument being played. Organ, guitar, piano, electric piano, pedal steel, harmonica, fiddle – throw some synths in there, and you just gotta sit back and enjoy the ride. White has assembled quite a band to back him on all but the final song here (a solo acoustic number, as is tradition), giving him so many more moving pieces to work with; you gotta wonder if he was dreaming up the near orchestral sweep of “Would You Fight For My Love?” while pounding away at the three chords in “Jumble, Jumble”.
Though he is by far most associated with the guitar, the piano feels like it very much makes up the backbone of the album, peeking through at the end of every line and bashing away time behind every chorus, very much expressing the cute and coy riffs he never quite got to on the blocky chord bashing he did with his piano in the Stripes. It lends to the ‘open’ feel the record has. If you can throw layer after layer on top without worrying about limits, you could do worse that having a core piano track, which makes it feel as if White has moved into the “songwriter/arranger” role, moreso than the solo bluesman feel when he wields the guitar (though it is deployed handily for solos), as keeping track of everything that’s going on here is quite a feat in itself. On “Lazaretto” itself, White spits lyric upon lyric over top of a bassline of no lean distortion and a slick rhythm with no relief for its cymbals. The song eventually breaks apart from its rather mean feel to make way for a fiddle soloing on top of the bassline, which seems to come completely from left field, but not necessarily out of place.
In my experience, Jack White likes to hide a gem further down the track list, and Lazaretto is no exception. Right from the introduction of the electronically treated fake laughter to the headbangin’ riff, “That Black Bat Licorice” is a hell of a lot of fun. “She writes letters like a Jack Chick comic/Just a buncha propaganda to make my fingers histrionic” howls Jack before adding “Like this”, as he introduces a quick little high-string guitar riff; “and this” and unleashing the riff again with all the instruments crashing down and down on the same target. He screams about how “I never liked that black bat licorice” over it all, another in the list of little phrases that White uses that gives everything that specific, detailed flavour that you’re not personally familiar with but you know means something to him (as in “Lazaretto”, where he talks about “making models of humans out of coffee and cotton”).
Even though there are a couple of tracks in the middle of the record that drag a little for me (“Entitlement” in particular doesn’t feel as vulnerable as it ought to. There’s a lot going on, which is the record’s M.O., but it doesn’t suit the humble vocal), Lazaretto is a fantastic record and I would definitely argue one of White’s best, regardless of the band associated with it. The feeling that anything can come down the line and that the instruments effortlessly tag in and out while hanging onto a cohesive whole is incredibly exciting and White is a fantastic master of ceremonies while still being able to write a hell of a tune and a hell of a riff.
“That Black Bat Licorice”: