Jack White’s Lazaretto is the result of his longest recording process to date, a process during which White had to overcome writer’s block and did so by digging up old stories and one-act plays he had written when he was 19 years old, 19 years ago. After he was done pulling from the material, he threw the original works out, put his new lyrics to the music he had already written, resulting in the eleven songs we now find on White’s second solo outing, the follow-up to 2012’s Blunderbuss. It’s a short album, just under 40 minutes, and on the first listen it’s a logical successor to the 2012 record, or even the other projects White used to be a driving force behind: The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather. Musically much of Lazaretto is reminiscent of the artist’s other work, evidenced by the guitar hooks he lays down on some of the tracks and the signature blend of garage, blues and folk rock we’ve come to associate with White. There are also some changes to the formula though, some of it great, some of it… not so much.
While the lyrics aren’t necessarily upbeat this time around, Lazaretto is certainly a break from the pitch-black words found on its predecessor Blunderbuss, an album about heartbreak and men scarred by their experiences with women. White’s new record lets some light in and features stories of people who make their own decisions and who aren’t purely victims of the other sex or circumstance. While the title of the album refers to a quarantine station, you at least get the sense that the character from the track ‘Lazaretto’ got out of there a stronger individual; “rise from the ashes” are the song’s final words. On ‘Alone In My Home’ the lines “The stones that are thrown against my bones break through, but they hurt less as time goes on” reinforce the notion that these individuals live by their own terms, overcome obstacles, endure and grow stronger because of their experiences instead of weaker. “I fantasize about the hospital, the army, asylum, confinement in prison, any place where there’s a cot to clear my vision,” White yells on ‘That Black Bat Licorice’, another strong case for individualism and the calm and healing isolation sometimes brings a person. Lyrically Lazaretto is a strong album, even though the completely idiotic chorus of its opening track would have you believe otherwise: “I said Lordy Lord, Lordy Lord, Lordy Lord, Lordy Lord, Lordy Lord, Lordy Lord, Lordy Lordy Lordy Lord.” It’s cringe-inducing, White’s addition to a song that’s loosely based on Blind Willie McTell’s ‘Three Women’.
Now, musically is where parts of this album really falter. The first track that was revealed when the album was announced, the instrumental ‘High Ball Stepper’, is one of Lazaretto‘s highlights. Jack’s riffs coupled with a bird-like howl from the backing vocalist, a reversed slide guitar, the occasional piano and hard-hitting drums make this a track you keep coming back too, a fantastic rocker of a song that sits nicely in the middle of the record. ‘Lazaretto’ offers similar guitar thrills, even though the end gets a bit cacophonous when two fiddles join in and start dueling for the listener’s attention. The Ennio Morricone-tinged ‘Would You Fight For My Love?’ is another standout, a track that builds towards a marvelous climax. Jack White’s vocals are especially strong on these tracks. Rapid-fire delivery here, haunted cries there and a fragile rawness are often the star of the songs, and surprises like White’s Saul Williams-like rap-singing on ‘That Black Bat Licorice’ keep you on your toes and keep the experience fresh. Unfortunately duds like ‘Just One Drink’, ‘Want And Able’ and ‘Entitlement’ lack the energy that is key to White’s best songs, and musically these tracks are dull, simple arrangements that borrow heavily from country waltzes, cheesy saloon pianos included. It all comes off as uninspired and just a tad easy. Additionally many of the recorded tracks seem to be influenced by Jack White’s tour performances with back-up bands The Buzzards and The Peacocks, because many songs sport the emulation of a live execution and an instrumentation based on these two bands’ strengths. It’s often the case that, because of it, the songs aren’t as tight as you want them to be, but are quite derivative instead, with unnecessary and distracting solos that aren’t even White’s.
Lazaretto is a mixed bag: its heights are wonderful, but its lows absolutely throwaway. The good outweighs the bad though, which makes Jack White’s second solo outing an enjoyable record, albeit a bit of a disappointing one. 7/10