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Jack White's 'Lazaretto' electrifies then burns out

Third Man Records

By Adam Theisen, Summer Senior Arts Editor
Published June 11, 2014

Despite being a lifelong Jack White fan, I did not expect to like Lazaretto. Blunderbuss, his first true solo effort, was mostly just filled with songs based around stale blues riffs and a few boilerplate, lovelorn acoustic tracks. Furthermore, I spent the week leading up to Lazaretto reading pieces like the one Steven Hyden wrote for Grantland about how Jack needs his former White Stripes partner back in order to stay relevant. However, while The White Stripes needed Meg White, Lazaretto proves Jack doesn’t need anyone else to prove that he’s a fantastic musician capable of creating electrifying rock. However, upon multiple listens, the excitement of the album can wear off, and Jack’s shortcomings become more apparent.

It’s likely that how you feel about Jack White lines up with how you feel about rock music in general. To oversimplify, he’s either the super-cool last bastion of “realness” among a constantly rising tide of electronic pop music, or he’s a behind-the-times Luddite who romanticizes a Golden Age that was never really that golden. White’s pop sensibilities always seem to be underestimated — after all, he did a James Bond theme song with Alicia Keys, and every football Saturday at The Big House 100,000 people sing the “Seven Nation Army” hook, which he wrote. The slinky, accusing piano number “Would You Fight For My Love?,” among others, shows off his ability to write catchy vocal melodies, but he keeps his sizeable amount of rock cred (and probably even gains some) by featuring an extensive backing band that showcases all of the classic rock ‘n’ roll instruments. Guitars, pianos, drums and even the bass all get solos on Lazaretto.

Lead-off hitter “Three Women,” probably the album’s highlight, shows why Jack is held up and idolized as a true rock ‘n’ roll savior. The full band steps up the garage-rock simplicity of White’s early days, as the track crackles with classic enjoyable blues energy, and White’s vocals show off his incredibly assured (though occasionally chauvinistic) coolness. “What gives me the right?” he asks, “Well these women must be gettin’ somethin’ ‘cause they come and see me every night.” However, White’s lack of strength as a lyricist is a big weak point on the record. Instead of drawing listeners in with metaphors or obscured personal details a la his idol, Bob Dylan, White mostly just falls back on old-school tropes like booze and women.

White also proves on Lazaretto that he can still shred with the best of them. Right in the middle of the seemingly-improvised but also intense lyrics of the title track, he casually throws in a killer guitar solo, a classic Zeppelin-esque burst whose coolness, again, is impossible to deny. Even the instrumental song “High Ball Stepper” is one of the record’s most compelling tracks because of the tantalizing stop-and-start piano and palpable hard-rock guitar jamming.

What I’ve left out so far is that half of the songs on Lazaretto could probably qualify as country music. While even the rockers have the occasional fiddle placed in the mix, “Entitlement” appropriates full-on the genre’s stereotypical twang, and while White has some experience with lighter folk music (see classics like “Hotel Yorba” or “We’re Going to Be Friends”), the songs that populate the record’s second half lack the childlike joy and enthusiasm that his older music featured and come off as weak imitations. Hearing Jack’s voice sing them will just make you want to listen to old White Stripes albums.

Jack spends the second half of Lazaretto trying to recapture the timeless feel of classic folk ballads with songs like “Want and Able,” but the tone just comes off as forced old-timeyness. Old folk songs are great not just because of how they sound but because of the legends and stories that come with them. You can’t put a vintage filter on an Instagram picture and expect it to feel the same as an actual black and white photograph.

It’s likely true that Jack White’s capital-I Important records are behind him. White’s no savior, and The White Stripes didn’t turn out to be the second coming of The Rolling Stones, but for those who still listen, White still makes some great rock ‘n’ roll. Lazaretto wouldn’t be any better with Meg White on drums. In fact, it might even be worse: a failed attempt to recapture their magic. While the “Jack White is back!” excitement of the first half wears off by the dull, burned-out back half, White is an incredible musician with a strong fanbase, and he certainly does enough to make them satisfied. Any newcomers (are there any new rock fans these days?), though, should take a long listen through his back catalog before checking this one out.


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