opinion byBRENDAN FRANK
Jack White has been behind some of the fiercest and most memorable guitar work this side of Y2K. Affixed with distinctive levels of command and distortion, it’s been the constant during his tenure as the last scion of blues rock. As a solo artist, he’s placed more emphasis on dense arrangements and style-mashing than he has on maintaining his trademark tone. Written in the aftermath of his divorce and the dissolution of the White Stripes, his debut solo effort Blunderbusswas forthright and occasionally venomous. Though it doesn’t sputter and fume in the same way its predecessor did, Lazaretto is more than content to follow through on the groundwork that White laid out on Blunderbuss.
If you’ve come to Lazaretto for sky-splitting riffs, you won’t walk away entirely disappointed, though there’s less of that than possibly any other record White has put his stamp on. Introspective where Blunderbuss was voracious, White offers upa banquet of sounds and styles, ranging from country and bluegrass to hard rock and hip hop. He stands on the precipice of gluttony on more than a handful of tracks. Lead single “High Ball Stepper”, for instance, is even more wild and omnivorous when played in sequence.
Song to song, White jumps back and forth between eras and tempos at a rate that seems entirely deliberate. There’s the sludgy savagery of the superb title track, which features one of the most thoroughly badass riffs White has ever penned. That’s followed by the Appalachian boy-girl duet “Temporary Ground”, which recalls Van Lear Rose, the Loretta Lynn record that White produced a decade ago. Throughout the record, backing vocalist Ruby Amanfu does a tremendous job of fleshing out the album’s more tender moments.
But as unfettered as White sounds, he also flirts with the formulaic from time to time. Opener “Three Women”, his reworking of a blues tune nearly a century old, and other roots-hued ballads like “Want and Able”, while pleasant, feel safe as well. As the sweet, piano-driven musings of “Alone in My Home” transition to the madcap energy of “That Black Bat Licorice”, two strong songs in their own right, it’s clear that White is determined to establish that he has fully freed himself from the innate constraints of fronting a two-person band, at any cost.
In any context though, White has always been an apt wordsmith. His lyrics, dripping with dark humour and oddball trains of thought, are often worth following the liner notes for here. Half mid-life crisis ramblings, half mental excavation, White’s words feel emotionally wrought, even when he’s spitting them out at a mile a minute. Lazaretto has its origins in poems and stories White wrote as a teenager, stowed away, aged, and rediscovered. Twenty years on, their reworked versions suit White at this point in his career. “Entitlement” finds a middle ground, employing the boomers’ favourite word to describe its progeny and turning it into self-reflexive rhetoric: “In a time where everyone feels entitled/Why can’t I feel entitled too?”.
Based on White’s prominence in news cycle these past weeks, some of his lyrics seem oddly appropriate, taking on new levels of irony. The line “Don’t you want to lose the part of your brain that has opinions?” on “That Black Bat Licorice” takes on a whole new meaning in light of his recent diatribes, and subsequent apology/not-apology to the Black Keys, their label, their touring members, their crew, and pretty much everyone who’s ever listened to a Black Keys song. Whether or not you agree with that assessment, White is bound to have his emulators; with a musical voice as singular as his, it’s more or less inevitable. Lazaretto will likely have little impact on his legacy one way or the other, but it’s a solid addition to his catalogue. No apology necessary. B