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Old Man White Slathers Reasonably Rockin’ ‘Lazaretto’ in Bummer Vibes

SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: June 10, 2014
Label: Third Man

So Jack White’s an asshole. So what — as long as the music’s good? The man matches a torrid history of well-documented dickhead behavior with a string of meticulously reckless blues-rock albums and towering live performances. One intra-band feud after another (first that guy from that band he pounded in a Detroit bar 10 years ago; lately second-gen sound-alikes the Black Keys), bandmates hired and ditched (including an erstwhile wife), disdain for the entire canon of music made after 1970-something… We forgive every trespass in the face of a face-shredding solo.

And White’s delivered. More so than any modern musician, White balances the insane chops of a world-class virtuoso with unassailable good taste. He picks the right players, the right projects, the right gear, the right look. At 38 years old, he’s a rock star on the borderline, suspended between yesterday’s classic-rock gods and an iTunes generation that had hasn’t anointed a single viable modern candidate; old enough to have earned his status, young enough to worry about keeping it. In these meager times for those who kneel at the altar of rock’n’roll, White is a shit-talking, tall-walking savior.

Which is why it’s natural to examine Lazaretto, White’s second solo album, the way an anthropologist examines a stone tablet: This fancy-hatted Nosferatu might offer wisdom from another world. But in Lazaretto, the keen Whiteologist hears unsettling signs. Our savior might be a little lost.

Leave aside the fact that White recorded the album over 18 months — an eternity for a guy typically attuned to raw, wham-bam sessions. Also leave aside the fact that White plundered lyrics from teenage journals he discovered in his attic. Both suggest some degree of indulgence, lassitude, a casting about for inspiration about which we can only speculate. Instead, consider the song “Alone in My Home.” Jaunty, piano-driven, sung from the perspective of a single guy holed up in his own expectations, it could be the sequel to “My Doorbell,” a standout from the White Stripes’ 2005 album Get Behind Me Satan. The lineage is clear. Except “Alone” replaces the sweet faith and boyish optimism of “Doorbell” with a willful, cranky solitude. “All alone in my home, nobody can touch me,” White sings. Is that how he likes things now?

As if that weren’t sour enough, the following song is called “Entitlement.” It’s a topical quagmire for a honky-tonk ballad; White’s bold simply for going there. But how to parse these lyrics? “I can’t bring myself to take without penance / Or atonement or sweat from my brow / Though the world may be spoiled / And getting worse every day / Don’t they feel like they cheated somehow?” Maybe White’s just mulling over the sorry state of these uncertain times. Maybe he’s being ironic. But it’s hard not to hear resentment, self-righteousness and a martyr complex in his words and the pedal steel that commiserates alongside them.

That pedal steel weeps and wails over several songs on Lazaretto; it’s abetted by harp and fiddle, plus a slew of backing singers male and female. In countrified instrumentation and meandering mood, the historical touchstone here is Bob Dylan’s Desire, a divisive mid-career album that featured some uncharacteristic turns — and a few missteps. Production on both albums often feels kinda off — too big and heavy to hang together, dragging songs into confusion. And like Dylan, White enlisted his sizable touring ensembles — the all-male Buzzards, the all-female Peacocks—as his studio team. (BTW the White Stripes were known to cover Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee”; maybe White’s “Just One Drink” is a rejoinder here.) The analogy is inexact, of course, but not inappropriate. Like Dylan, even when White struggles he does so remarkably.

Lazaretto scores a few triumphs. Opener “Three Women” bubbles with dopey bravado and neo-Motown swing. White nearly raps the title track before crashing in with a ballistic guitar solo and then reintroduces the crackling, almost-electronic production flashes from Blunderbuss… that give way to a limp fiddle interlude. All-instrumental “High Ball Stepper” is the sort of sonic wrecking ball that will bring down concert houses when played on stage. And first single “Black Bat Licorice” is preeminent, switched-on White, weird and hyper-literate and rightly belligerent.

Nobody begrudges White for stretching out. At this point in a rock’n’roll career, we expect some groping for gravitas, the enlisting of children’s choirs and symphony orchestras. White wisely forgoes such flabby contrivance (though “I Think I Found the Culprit” ends with a questionable gospel-esque flourish). But Lazaretto‘s experimentation sounds ambivalent, its songs fractured and distracted.

With each solo album, White steps further from the classic rock star stance and closer to today’s model: the rap star. In a Kanyean mode, much of Lazaretto reads like an indictment of popular culture, a defense of the sensitive artist against ignorance and incivility. White just about spits his vocals on a few songs: “Black Bat Licorice” boasts the lyrical miracle of rhyming “avuncular” with “make it up to her.” It’s no coincidence that Hype Williams directed the video for “Freedom at 21” two years back.

For all White’s reel-to-reel analog purism, his audience is listening to this album with crappy earbuds or Bluetooth speakers. His every rant and subsequent apology alters the way we hear his music. He doesn’t give a shit about anyone else’s opinion, but he cares deeply about making good records. There’s a minor reckoning coming to bear on our hero, and judging by Lazaretto he’s nervously sniffing the winds of change.