In a recent interview with NPR’s All Songs Considered, Jack White discussed the meaning of the word “lazaretto”: “It’s a word for a quarantine hospital, or a quarantine island, or something like that. It’s a beautiful-sounding word, too.” He goes on to say he wants the “powers that be” to lock him in a quarantine hospital for two months. Those are some unsurprisingly weird words from the coolest, quirkiest, and busiest man in rock. But let’s hope White stays right where he is, making music. Because Lazaretto, his second and latest solo album, proves he’s a musician operating at the peak of his powers.
From the electrifying hip-hop of the title track to country sing-along “Just One Drink”, Lazaretto is a relentlessly entertaining musical pastiche bursting with the White’s relentless energy; freed from the constraints of The White Stripes, the color-coordinated blues rock duo he fronted from 1997 to 2011. White- a vinyl-geek steeped in vintage Delta blues, Nashville country classics, and the early hard-rock he loved as a teenager – moves from genre to genre, time period to time period, effortlessly. His obsession with music of the past (often related to his record label/store Third Man Records) has brought him plenty of unwanted criticism. Yet the way he takes music history and crafts it into something new, like a guitar-wielding, history-altering hero, makes for some undeniably compelling songs. “Three Women”, for example, is a modern take on Blind Willie McTell’s 1928 recording “Three Women Blues”. Adding lyrics like “I got three women, red, blonde, and brunette/It took a digital photograph to pick which one I like “, White infuses McTell’s simple, acoustic ballad with thumping drum fills, unfettered soloing, and even some pedal steel.
Even when exploring familiar territory, Lazaretto feels different than anything White has done before, chiefly because he’s backed by a full group of musicians (not just a drummer). How could The White Stripes, who recorded albums in weeks, have crafted the rich, intricate sounds achieved here? Another reason for such sophisticated-sounding songs is that it took White over 18 months to record the album. “That Black Bat Licorice”, an undeniably funky showstopper, is the most obvious example: bubbly sound effects give way to layered vocals, splashy cymbals, and assured guitar work, not to mention instruments like clavinet and hammond.
What an array of backing musicians, by the way. Lillie Mae Rischie’s twangy, precious backup vocals provides a nice foil to White’s unique singing style (part country holler, part Robert Plant howl). Daru Jones’ battering drumming get plenty of spotlight, while instruments like pedal steel and upright bass make regular appearances.
Lyrically, White is top notch, whether he’s writing a tender ballad or an exhilarating rocker. His equivocal, idiosyncratic lyrics don’t always make much sense but it’s hard not to get caught up in reading into everything. If you’re interested in reading into things, meanwhile, White claims the lyrics are inspired by one-act plays and poems he wrote when he was 19.
Though things get a little repetitive near the end, there’s not really a bad track on the album. One could go on forever discussing the clanging, catchy instrumental “High Ball Stepper”, or the syncopated alt-country of “Temporary Ground”, or the twinkly pop melodies of “Alone in My Home”, or you could just go listen to the album. With new sounds abound, this an album that sounds totally new yet has all the hallmarks of White’s oeuvre (breathtaking guitar-solos, sometimes chauvinistic lyrics, blues covers) are all here. Brilliant, infectious, delightful, nostalgic, and ambiguous, Lazaretto is the sound of a musical genius operating at the peak of his powers, shredding guitars and singing country ballads with equal skill. On the White Stripes classic “Seven Nation Army” he sang about going to Witichita. Eleven years later, as a solo artist, he’s still discovering musical territories and creating something new from the old.