Immediately after reading the headline of this review it is very likely you fell into one of two camps: someone already converted to the brilliance of Jack White or someone who either hates him or has never cared for him. This writer falls into the former category, tracking down digital and vinyl copies of everything he’s done, a quarterly subscription to Third Man Records’ ‘Vault,’ and several tri-color 7” singles and even a Dead Weather triple-decker record. Now that you know what kind of fan this assessment of ‘Lazaretto’ comes from, how does it stack up?
It’s honestly a very mixed bag. In some ways it feels like he’s retreading sounds that he’s toyed with previously, and other times it feels like he does manage to push his sound in either completely new directions, or at least new directions for worn sounds. It was heartbreaking when lead single, the instrumental “High Ball Stepper” left me feeling lukewarm. Sure it had a nice crunchy groove and a quirky vocal yelp, but the whole time it felt like waiting. Waiting for those signature vocals that never came.
Next single “Lazaretto” is an infectious ear worm that digs itself in deeper with each listen. What felt like at first a decent track with a killer guitar riff has become in context of the album an unquestionable album highlight and arguably a career highlight, the way the song mixes his rock tendencies with his folk/country ones, almost as if you can hear his all-male band ‘The Buzzards’ drop out suddenly halfway through the track and his all-female band ‘The Peacocks’ pick up the track and carry it home in grand twangy style.
The album opens with a modernization of Blind Willie McTell’s “Three Women Blues,” where the narrator brags about multiple romantic entanglements. It’s a fun romp that has a classic rock, mid-period Rolling Stones vibe to it. “Temporary Ground,” is a tender moment that helps slow your heart rate after the frenetic “Lazaretto.” With its beautiful female duet, pastoral lyrical images and contemplation of life’s great questions, it’s arguably the best of the “quiet” songs on the record.
After this country-friend grace, the dramatic theatrics hit heights never previously attained on “Would You Fight For My Love?” The song is a brokenhearted plea to someone, asking them the titular question, but the piano line has nervous tension and behind Jack’s outpouring is ethereal female vocals that explode in the bridge into full blow operatic levels. That’s right, Jack’s figured out a way to incorporate opera into his already eclectic sound. The first time you hear it will likely startle you and perhaps your jaw will even drop open. It too is one of the best tracks on the record. Side one ends with the previously discussed instrumental “High Ball Stepper.”
Side two opens with the return of more of that Rolling Stones vibe on “Just One Drink,” where Jack delivers some his most direct and archetypal rock and rock roll lyrics telling us, “you drink water, I’ll drink gasoline, one of us is happy, the other one is me.” The piano jangles in all the right ways, the backing female vocals sweeten the deal and it’s a solid, fun song, albeit not his most original. “Alone in My Home” is a slow to mid-tempo number about isolationism due to lost love and regret with some of the best piano on the album and a simple melody that will stick in your head.
On the vinyl, next is “That Black Back Licorice,” which is one of the best beats Jack’s created since “My Doorbell.” Seriously, if this thing isn’t sampled by a rapper at some point and flowed over, I’ll be incredibly surprised. It’s so amazingly good. This song makes you want to crank it as the vocal delivery comes the closest he ever has to rapping (barring some Dead Weather moments). It’s another album highlight.
“Entitlement” slows things down again as Jack talks about how entitled everyone in modern times feels, and how he wants to feel that way too, but feels guilty about it. It’s a “get off my lawn” old man lament. The instrumentation is nice enough, but the lyrics are not his best moment, and this makes it the weakest track on the album. As an aside, on the donwload/CD these two tracks are in opposite order. Each order has its own merits.
The album picks up tempo one last time with “I Think I Found the Culprit,” which also employs another tense piano line and haunting female “ooooohs” in the background, until the breakdown builds into a vocal cascade of Jack and the female vocals repeating, “birds of a feather may lay together, but the uglier one is always under the gun.” It’s a cryptic tune and leaves you feeling uneasy, but in a good way.
In a tradition that stretches back to ‘White Blood Cells,’ the album ends with a plaintive piano number, “Want and Able.” Honestly, the song hasn’t sunk in yet. It feels slight, and somewhat forgettable until the final line of the record where he laments wanting to hold his loved one but “something simply will not let me.” It leaves the listener on a note of lingering want and unrest, which is perhaps a reflection of his state of mind.
All in all, ‘Lazaretto’ is not as strong a statement as ‘Blunderbuss,’ but it contains some amazing tracks that any Jack White fan will put in heavy rotation for at least the next several months, if not permanently. If you’re a vinyl lover/collector to even a small extent, the album is worth purchase because of it being what he calls the “Ultra LP” which contains all of the following features:
* 180 gram vinyl.
* 2 vinyl-only hidden tracks hidden beneath the center labels.
* 1 hidden track plays at 78 RPM and 1 plays at 45 RPM, making this a 3-speed record.
* Side A plays from the inside to the outside of the disc.
* Dual-groove technology: plays an electric or acoustic intro for “Just One Drink” depending on where needle is dropped. The grooves meet for the body of the song.
* Matte finish on Side B, giving the appearance of an un-played 78 RPM record.
* Both sides end with locked grooves.
* Vinyl pressed in seldom-used flat-edged format.
* Dead wax area on Side A contains a hand-etched hologram by Tristan Duke of * Infinity Light Science, the first of its kind on a vinyl record.
* Absolutely zero compression used during recording, mixing and mastering.
* Different running order from the CD/digital version.
* Utilizes some mixes different from those used on CD/digital versions.
* LP includes MP3 download insert.
This album took him longer to complete than any of his previous records, stretching out the recording time to a year and half, obsessively tinkering with things. Which is strange, since it sounds far more ramshackle than the near-flawless ‘Blunderbuss.’ This proves he is a man guided by his instincts, and would likely be better off sticking with his gut instead of letting things stew.
Written By Jarad Matula
OurVinyl | Associate Editor