Album Pick of the Month: Jack White’s Lazaretto

Jack White Fender
After securing his spot among the top rock artists of this generation with over a decade helming the White Stripes (hello six Grammy wins), Jack White only continued his hot streak during his stints with the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather.

But it would be foolish to overlook his powerhouse solo efforts.  Blunderbuss, his 2012 solo debut, was both a commercial and critical success, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and earning a total of four Grammy nominations.

Now, White is back with another set of solo tracks with the soul-scorching Lazaretto, a work that seamlessly pulls together a wide-ranging list of influences and even offers a glimpse into the mind of the enigmatic musician.

The title of the album is telling. A lazaretto is another word for a quarantine for maritime travelers, so named after the beggar Lazarus from the Bible.

White slips that quarantine theme into the lyrics in a couple of places on the album.  For instance, on the fierce title track, White sings about someone who was thrown “down into a lazaretto, boiled rotten,” and on “That Black Bat Licorice,” he sings of a prisoner being in “any place where there’s a cot to clear my vision.”

Jack White Lazaretto“My sort of fantasy that I have is, I wish that some other forces, some powers that be, would push me into this scenario for a month and lock me somewhere, instead of me doing it to myself all the time,” White told NPR in a recent interview.  “I’m always imposing restrictions on myself. And so I guess my fantasy is, it would be so nice to be in a quarantine hospital, but not to die from it — just to know that I had to stay here for two months and I can’t do anything else. That’s why I named the album Lazaretto.”

Interestingly, White enlisted a surprising collaborator when he was crafting the lyrics of Lazaretto – himself.  As the story goes, White found a journal of sorts from when he was 19 years old that contained a series of poems and one-act plays from which he plucked key characters and sentences to provide a few points of reference.

The elder White was able to infuse a mature perspective into those ideas, leveraging the experience he has gained over the years from writing countless hits.

Musically, Lazaretto runs the gamut of straightforward rock, honky tonk, jazz and even rap(?!).

True, White opined in the aforementioned NPR interview that the album’s eponymous song was inspired by the “braggadocio of some hip-hop lyrics – the bragging about oneself in hip-hop music.”  As such, White unleashes spitfire rhymes in his trademark snarl over a head-nodding beat and fuzzed-out guitars.

Directly after the title track, the sweet fiddle of Lillie Mae Rische cools things off, as it announces the opening of “Temporary Ground” and gives way to the plaintive wails of a steel pedal guitar.

The fiddle and steel stringer provided a backbone for the song “High Ball Stepper,” an instrumental cut that was released well ahead of the album.  In just 16 seconds, the listener is sucked in by Rische and Maggie Bjorklund’s nimble fretwork and what White called a “backwards pedal,” which features something that Bjorklund played but in reverse.

The end result is a complex song that shrieks and rumbles and wheezes and whirs all at the same time.

White kicks open the saloon doors for the romping “Just One Drink,” which checks all the boxes of a classic bar anthem – booze, love and a fiddle to ease down the whiskey.

“You drink water / I drink gasoline / One of us is happy / One of us is mean / I love you but honey / Why don’t you love me?” he croons on the song.

Lazaretto closes with a country ballad called “Want and Able.”  For those wearing earbuds while taking this one in, the left channel projects White’s faint voice and a piano, while the right channel features White singing the high end and strumming a guitar.  The two protagonists of the song’s story find themselves wanting to fight outside forces but unable to do so, asking, “Who is the who telling who what to do?”

The vinyl version of Lazaretto is a must-have for collectors, as it boasts hidden tracks under the label and a hologram that appears on the wax when the record spins.

But no matter the format, Lazaretto is a definite to add to anyone’s playlist.  With the varied styles on the album all coming together under White’s genius touch, there is no need to even set it on shuffle.

Letting it play from track one – the blues hall-ready “Three Women” – unfettered until the end provides an epic journey into White’s prolific mind.  In this case, repeat might be a better setting.

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