Intricate Twang with Hidden Depth
I was late to the Jack White party. Of course “Seven Nation Army” got my head banging and I enjoyed The White Stripes’ singles on the radio, but I was not familiar with his full library. It was not until I took a history-of-the-blues class that I realized that Jack White was a continuation of the blues narrative. Being able to see where the music came from allowed me to appreciate how Jack White respects and progresses blues music. With this new understanding—and the fact that his show in London on his Lazaretto tour was the greatest show I have ever seen—I quickly fell under Jack’s spell. Finally on the bandwagon, I obsessively listened to all his material. Lazaretto was the first album of Jack White’s whose release I had to gruelingly wait for. It was worth the wait. Lazaretto stays true to Jack White’s roots in blues, moves his sound forward through a full band and western feel, and offers a high level of lyrical complexity.
The opening track, “Three Women”, perfectly exemplifies the overall sound Lazaretto is looking to establish. As one of the best album openers I have ever heard, “Three Women” feels like a velvet curtain blown open by a hurricane. The track starts slow and soft with a natural swagger, and leads into the main riff as it blazes forward with the full band behind it. The main riff is played on the keyboard, not the guitar, and each fill throughout the song highlights a different instrument, from keyboard, to drums, to bass, and, finally, steel guitar. This full line-up is the perfect sample of the meal to come. White then interjects the song with gospel, singing “Lordy Lord, Lordy Lord!”, and introduces the listener to a southern vibe that permeates the entire album. Afterwards, if you were not already on your feet with your hands in the air, the song’s final crescendo syncs all the instruments together to blast the listener with enough energy to carry him or her throughout the remainder of the record. “Three Women” reveals the direction of Lazaretto, a western-influenced showcase of a variety of instruments, coupled with a relentless energy flavored by Jack White’s unique personality.
Lazaretto does not limit its new direction to western style additions. Although the album is reminiscent of hillbilly or bluegrass music because it features the violin, steel guitar, fiddle and mandolin, it does not double down on a southern-fried sound. The title track, “Lazaretto”, is a rap song. White rhymes the whole song with a heavy attitude over an intense, fuzzy riff. He also incorporates the distorted, high frequency sound that seems to have migrated over from his super band, The Dead Weather. The raw energy from “Lazaretto” is carried into the next track: “High Ball Stepper”. The song feels like a war cry from The Warriors. The instrumental track centers itself on a hard-hitting, crunchy riff interspersed with a disjointed keyboard fill that keeps the listener’s attention. White returns to a rap-flavored lyric delivery in “The Black Bat Licorice”, and steps into the realm of reggae using an open snare that lingers after each hit, creating a familiar reggae beat. He also backs up his own vocals with a high-pitched timbre that bounces from word to word, creating a uniquely craveable dissonance between the two. Inklings of White’s increased, lyrical delivery are not limited to these tracks, however.. A sped-up cadence appears during a myriad of lines throughout the album, giving the words a natural bounce as syllables come pouring over the music. Overall, all three tracks are an exploration in hard hitting riffs, hefty distortion, and rap-style verses.
Jack White’s lyrical deliverance is not the only thing that has changed. The complexity of the lyrics has escalated as well. Blues lyrics have always stuck to the themes of infidelity and frustration from the opposite sex, and Lazaretto still focuses on relationships. However, instead of singing about cheating or unreciprocated feelings, White questions desire. The track “Want and Able” exemplifies this added depth by creating an internal dialogue. There is a struggle throughout the song between desire, social norms, and self-limitation. This articulation of inward struggle goes deeper than aforementioned blues themes.The track “Entitlement” strays from the classic blues tropes all together and instead criticizes the deserving mentality in America. The song sways and shuffles akin to a drinking tune, with slowly delivered lyrics. White professes that, “there are children today who are lied to, told the world is rightfully theirs”, and states that achievement should come from the sweat of one’s brow. He then responds to the over-arching attitude, “If we can’t be happy then you can’t be too”, by declaring his apathy to this sentiment. Overall, Lazaretto diversifies its lyrics by offering social commentary.
Jack White even uses lyrics to create a dichotomy between energetic, feel-good melodies and sympathy-inducing themes. “Just One Drink” immediately gives the listener a jolt of energy as the intro swells into a release that is driven by the keyboard, guitar, drums and violin playing all together. The driving beat of the drums gives the listener something to hold onto as they are taken through an upbeat joyride. Personally, this song brings a smile to my face every time I hear it. Contrastingly, the lyrics tell a story of a man with a drinking problem and his boring wife as love fades away from the relationship. The song does not bring the listener down, however. The vivacious melody tells the listener that even though this problem exists, it will be okay. The problems between the two characters almost become endearing, as if the music shows that they have accepted each other despite their flaws. The track “Alone in my Home” also executes this difference between instrumental mood and subject matter expertly by equating isolation to victory. Ultimately, Jack White utilizes instrumentation as a way to add complexity to his themes.
Ultimately, Lazaretto holds true to Jack White’s iconic sound without stagnating. The album explores new avenues of style, borrowing from rap, utilizing grittier, fuzzier guitar tones, and taking White’s sound into a western direction. The violin is showcased heavily, the steel guitar backs up several melodies, and there is a new, noticeable twang in both Jack’s voice and in his backup singers. Lillie Mae Rische has a standout performance backing up White’s vocals and occasionally singing lead, while White provides his own backup vocals in several songs that come across brilliantly in the album. Clocking in at thirty-nine minutes, Lazaretto keeps the listener’s attention the entire duration and flows from song to song fluidly. The album falls flat only once during the track “Would You Fight for My Love” with high-pichted backing vocals that lies somewhere between overdramatic and dissonant. The lyrical content stays true to the blues genre while offering a deeper complexity when reading between the lines. Lazaretto is a southern-fried, riff-filled endeavor into blues with added grime and feel-good moments.