A ‘Lazaretto’ is a place where sailors were kept in quarantine, and the name can be traced back to Lazarus, celebrity leper and all time king of the comeback. It’s also the name of Jack White’s new album. We’ve taken a listen to find out whether he, like Lazarus, is back stronger than ever:
Ladies and gentlemen, I bring to you… Jack White the lothario! A caddish, love-’em-and-leave-’em type with a little black book filled with the names of old flames. An extended intro of rinky-dink piano and a guitar riff that comes on like the quainter, mild-mannered cousin of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Black Dog’, before Jack hollers: “I got three women, red blonde and brunette/ It took a digital photograph to pick which one I liked.”
Of course there’s three adoring paramours – longtime White scholars will know he’s had an obsession with the magic number since the early days of The White Stripes – but a digital photograph? Doesn’t sound like the kind of fancy-dan technology that Jack would take to – perhaps he couldn’t carry around oil paintings quite so easily? There’s a tongue-in-cheek sign-off, too, as he purrs: “I know what you’re thinking, what gives you the right/ Well, these women must be getting something because they come and see me every night.” As Spinal Tap would say: You’re a saucy one, Mister Jack.
The title track and, as of last month, officially the world’s fastest record ever made. And ‘Lazaretto’ benefits, too, from the fact it feels so fast and loose, an extended jam session that squeezed out a rough ‘n’ ready cut that’s pitched somewhere between the dark, menacing squelch of ‘Blue Orchid’ and The Dead Weathers’ fuzzy ‘I Cut Like A Buffalo’. One of the reasons I’ve never been able to get on board with the drudgery of The Raconteurs is that their rock-by-numbers approach seems to extinguish Jack’s phosphorous-like flashes of fun – it’s like watching Al Pacino wrestling with the script to Eastenders, or Diego Maradona forced to play football for Sam Allardyce and reduced to folornly gazing at the ball as it sails over his head yet again. It’s so much more satisfying when, like here, he’s able to bash out madcap, snarling blues-soul like a mad scientist.
A sweet-toothed breather, here, reminiscent of the old ramshackle porch-stomp that’s always come so easily to Jack. It’s a woozy, Dixieland-like ditty which finds Jack joined by a female country siren, the kind of track you can imagine being strummed around some old Nashville campfire decades ago, or being sung in a dusty saloon while Jack sings: “The old explorers had it easy/ They discovered nothing new.”
‘High Ball Stepper’
One of the few teasers for the album that’s been made available so far, and it’s probably the record’s four strangest (and arguably strongest) minutes: a demented instrumental with a squealing guitar that mimics an hysterical shriek, and a devil’s brew of jazzy piano and huge, Hendrix-style wig-outs.
‘Would You Fight For My Love?’
In his review of Jack’s last album, ‘Blunderbuss’, NME’s Barry Nicolson hailed it as the singer’s most revealing and personal LP yet. And until this song, ‘Lazaretto’ feels like the antithesis of that record’s relative candidness. But even on its title alone, ‘Would You Fight For My Love?’ can’t help but forge links to White’s split and divorce from ex-wife Karen Elson. It starts with a rolling drum beat and piano before Jack moans: “It’s not enough that I love you, there’s always things I have to prove to you.”
And then he’s bemoaning his broken heart, too, with a metaphor that only Jack White could think of: “Well I’m afraid of being hurt, that’s true, but not afraid of any physical pain/ Just as I’m always scared of water but not afraid of being out in the rain.” The chorus, meanwhile, erupts like an organ-blessed, raucous blues-punk take on the Spaghetti-Western material from his ‘Rome’ project. Even stripping away all the real-life context, it feels like the most heart-on-sleeve song on the album up to this point.
‘Just One Drink’
A stompy, stressy little thing which initially threatens to transform into Bowie’s ‘Suffragette City’ or the Velvet Underground’s ‘Waiting For The Man’: it’s built around that same chugging, nagging and insistent riff, but ‘Just One Drink’ is really about the flouncy piano, which gives it an almost Honky Tonk-ish feel. As with the last track, Jack’s got unrequited affection on his mind again (“I love you, but honey why don’t you love me?”), and he’s fond of guzzling harder stuff than straight-up booze. “You drink water, I drink gasoline/ One of us is happy, one of us is mean.” Well, sipping Castrol GTX will have a habit of making you cranky, Jack…
‘Alone In My Home’
Sounds like a sweetly-tempered ‘The Denial Twist’, but without the sugary sentiment to match: here, Jack thinks that if misery loves company than happiness is true isolation, and dreams of building himself his own patch of ground where everyone will bugger off and leave him be. “I’m becoming a ghost, so nobody can know me,” he pouts over another track which, again, is built around twinkling, teasing piano notes rather than guitar…
In fact, piano has arguably been the defining focus of ‘Lazaretto’ so far. And while you might think that a disappointment, given how gifted a guitar player Jack White is, it gives the whole album a dusty, country sheen: an earthiness that suits him very well, and feels perfect for the curmudgeonly snark of ‘Entitlement’, in which gentle ivory-tinkling and an acoustic strum gives him a platform to snipe at the 21st century’s ‘everyone wins a prize’ mentality. “Whenever I’m doing just as I please/ Someone cuts me down to my knees,” he grumbles, repeating the desire from ‘Alone In My Home’ to be left to get on with it, free from prying eyes and meddling hands. What could be more country than that, eh?
‘That Black Bat Liquorice’
The hands-down winner of the ‘Best Song Title On This Album’ award, and it’s suitably batshit-sounding, too: it starts with a weird, vibrating shudder and then lurches into a tight, catchy-as-fuck guitar riff. It’s sludgy blues-rock and it’s Jack sneering and swaggering, being naughty while some stern female voices warn him to “behave yourself”, embarking on flights of fancy and mangling weird lyrical phrases together. “She’s built for speed like a black castrum doloris/ Good for the needy like Nietzche, Freud and Horace.” What does that mean? I have no idea, but it really doesn’t matter.
‘I Think I Found The Culprit’
It starts sounding like it’s been lifted from a Tarantino revenge flick: a swooping, swooning piano score, a mournful acoustic strum, Western-style sound effects which should be soundtracking a doomed sojourn across an old dustbowl. But then Jack’s quirks peak through: an odd stop-start rhythm with shuffling percussion a la ‘My Doorbell’, and Jack being undone by his own uncertainty. “Two birds sitting there perfectly still/ One of them up to no good,” he declares, but by the time the higher-pitched chorus hits, he’s trying to convince himself he’s found the guilty party more than anyone else. “I think I found the culprit/ Looks like you, it must be you.”
‘Want And Able’
And it ends with a strange sort-of sermon, which Jack recites like an old fable – although most fables don’t begin with the odd cawing of a chorus of birds. At first, it feels like a damp squib to end on – gentle, slow, and a track that meanders rather than galloping along with momentum – but then, Jack White has often favoured weird, off-kilter codas for his albums: think ‘It’s True That We Love One Another’ from ‘Elephant’, for example. And ‘Want And Able’ feels like it’s sofly reinforcing a lot of the record’s themes, too: the lulling, gentle piano, the crackle of old Nashville, and teasing out the conflict between desire and duty, trying to bring some calm and clarity to the jumble of modern life. “One said it didn’t feel so good, to never be fulfilled,” he sings. “Forever stressed out and impatient.”