Album Review: Jack White, "Lazaretto"

Lauded singer-songwriter-guitarist discovers own teenage writings in attic, mines them for new album. So goes the official backstory for Jack White's latest. The writings in question are short stories and plays composed when their author, now 38, was 19. With that in mind, you might expect to find at least a hint of youthful autobiography on "Lazaretto," but not so fast. These 11 songs seem to be far less plainly personal statements than those on his previous solo release, 2012's "Blunderbuss." Whereas that album was clearly a breakup record, the lyrics on this one cover their tracks in whimsy and wordplay, even as its music is more eclectic and often more energized than that of its predecessor.

"Lazaretto"'s general mood is one of vague existential dissatisfaction, which can take many forms. On one song, "That Black Bat Licorice," White expresses a desire to retreat from the world into a hospital, asylum or prison over a pounding riff played by guitar, bass, Hammond organ and mandolin in unison. On another, the stripped-down folk waltz "Want and Able," he laments his inability to connect with people. Recurring themes include entitlement (he doesn't like it), on a track of the same name; being told what to do (he doesn't like that either); and becoming a ghost (he's "getting better" at it, to quote "Would You Fight for My Love?"

White's backed by the same basic crew of fierce players from "Blunderbuss," but he edges the music closer to a country sound this time. Pedal steel and fiddle find their way into even the loudest rockers. This could be attributed to the influence of Nashville, White's adopted home, except that his twang sounds filtered through The Rolling Stones. You can hear that equally in the roadhouse stomp of "Just One Drink" and the keening vocal harmonies of graceful highlight "Alone in My Home," another song obsessed with ghostly isolation.

In established White tradition, there's also plenty of big, blustery blues-rock. Two fine examples, and perhaps the most fun moments here, are the title track, which weds a fuzzy funk riff to histrionic rapping, and opener "Three Women," which cleverly updates the Blind Willie McTell classic: White needs "a digital photograph," not the governor of Georgia, to determine which of his women he prefers, for example.

We may never know how many of White's attic artifacts actually made it onto the album, as he apparently destroyed the documents once he went through them. The better to throw off future biographers, perhaps. Of course, the truth of this backstory is open to question. After all, this is John Anthony Gillis, man of mystery, lover and maker of rock myth. (Remember, to name only the most obvious example, his claim that he and former White Stripes bandmate Meg White were siblings?)

Still, none of this affects the high enjoyability of "Lazaretto." The one indisputable self-revelation it offers is that Jack White is a man, and musician, of many angles. And for that we should probably be grateful.


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