The Conversationalist: Is Jack White’s Lazaretto An Evolution Or An Endpoint?

Jack_White_-_LazarettoBy Spencer, Antony, and Mark. Jack White’s second solo album, Lazaretto, dropped this week. Following a tradition started on our previous site, After The Radio, three of our S&N contributors engaged in a bi-coastal email conversation on the album and its place in the broader Jack White pantheon of musical experiences:

Spencer: After my first listen to Lazaretto, I think we can safely say that Jack White has fully walked away now from the minimalism that was so characteristic of his work with the White Stripes (and, to a lesser extent, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather). It’s a continuation of what he did on his last solo album, Blunderbuss, which saw him experimenting with a much broader range of instrumentation and genres, from pianos and pedal steels to honky-tonk and bluegrass. Here, the use of the fiddle stands out in the transition between “Lazaretto” and “Temporary Ground,” along with more piano, more steel guitar, and a fatter bass sound than we’ve come to expect (especially for a guy whose first band didn’t even have one!).

The first question I pass to you, Antony and Mark, is this: do you think Jack White’s evolution into a fuller sound has been a good thing for him as an artist? Or do you think he’s lost something in the process — that undefinable imprint that made his music stand out?

Antony: Well, a fair question to start with, but before I answer it, I’m going to put my cards on the table. My mixed feelings about Lazaretto sum up my overall feelings about Jack White. I could condense the Stripes into one rollicking good 45 minute album. I could never hear The Raconteurs or The Dead Weather again and I wouldn’t miss it. And as much as I like Blunderbuss, I really haven’t gone back to it. It’s with this history that I meet Lazaretto somewhere between bored and disappointed. I expect a lot from Jack White without any great emotional attachment to pretty much any of his music.

So, has this fuller sound been a good thing for him as an artist? Yes. I think the simplicity and bare-bones of the Stripes was revolutionary but limiting, not only sonically but also stylistically. It limited White’s ability to communicate his wide-ranging love of American music. I think he took the Stripes sound as far as it could go. In this way Blunderbuss was a breath of fresh air. Lazaretto is a problematic record but not because of the genre-hopping or fuller sound.

Mark: Owen Pallett recently wrote a brilliant piece explaining the genius of Lady Gaga through music theory. In it, he explains why “Bad Romance” had such broad appeal and how it departed from the monolith of her previous catalog of minor-key driven hits. Blunderbuss similarly introduced the world to a new Jack White, with a fuller genre-bending sound. Ironically, Blunderbuss‘s best song was its most stripped down and bluesy — “Love Interruption.” With just a keyboard and simple guitar riff, White mused on the painful dichotomies of love. And it’s there that I think White thrives. Minimalism emphasizes his genius as a guitarist. During the prime of his bluesy minimalism, he was one of the better modern guitarists. The problem with Jack White’s solo sound is that it’s no longer guitar-driven. Sure, the guitar makes an appearance on some songs (it rips through some interludes like on “Three Women“), but it is rarely a song’s main feature.

Jack White – “Three Women

On Lazaretto, he moves even further away from the monolith of his previous guitar-driven minimalism. To me the fuller sound of the album dilutes another one of White’s strengths. He’s a clever lyricist — always sharp with quick turns of phrase. But he lacks a little as a storyteller. The longer, fuller compositions on Lazaretto fall a little flat as result. Even on several listens, I had trouble catching his lyrics and following his songs. Lazaretto lacks the visceral pop appeal of his work with The White Stripes and tends toward the fuller but less interesting sound of The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather.

Jack-White-Interview-Magazine-02Spencer: Interesting points, guys. For one thing, I’m a little surprised to learn that I’m the only one who enjoyed The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather. They’re no White Stripes, to be sure, but I think I prefer those albums to Jack White’s solo work, as least in terms of pure listenability. I think Antony is very much correct when he says that White had taken his songwriting as far as it could go within the confines of The White Stripes. Given the inherent limitations of working only with guitar and drums — not to mention Meg White’s own limitations as a drummer — that shouldn’t be surprising, even for a guy with the kind of guitar chops that Jack White has. I think he wants to be more than just a guitarist; he wants to be a musician, a songwriter, a creator. And with all of his various side projects, Blunderbuss included, he’s gone a long way to proving himself in that regard.

Blunderbuss was White’s first departure from that more guitar-driven sound, and I think it was an artistic success. And yet as much as I praised it, I have to admit that I only listened to it maybe four or five times and then kind of moved on. And now Lazaretto feels like a watered-down continuation of Blunderbuss. There are moments of sonic greatness. The title track rocks, and features some truly nasty guitar thrashing. “Three Women” and “Just One Drink” are light-hearted and fun. But the rest of the album, to me, is completely forgettable. Neither Lazaretto nor Blunderbuss have the staying power of The White Stripes, and I think the lack of guitar as their centerpiece is a reason for that. Shakespeare and Joyce might be able to do some interesting things with sculpture or painting if they tried, but at the end of the day, you want to see them do what they do best — write beautiful words.

Antony: It’s funny that it sounds like we all agree that Lazaretto is not a success, and I think, we probably also agree that it’s a fairly weak extension of Blunderbuss. But I think we might totally disagree about what’s worth listening to on Lazaretto. I absolutely loathe the title track and “Three Women” is full of bile and anger to me. It seems that whenever the guitar does move to the front and center, it’s wanky instead of emotional. It’s jagged in a way that calls attention to itself like some sort of temper tantrum, rather than being it’s own verse (as a good solo should be).

The best parts of the album, for me, are those that build on “Love Interruption” and use the woman’s vocals to contrast with White’s masculine but somewhat androgynous voice. So I think “Temporary Ground” is easily the best track on Lazaretto.

Spencer: I liked “Temporary Ground” too. I think the first half of the album is a solid B+, while the second half kind of sputters out. As for why we seem to favor different sounds on this album, it’s completely possible that you’re judging this album for what it actually is, while Mark and I are judging it for what we want it to be. The guitar-centric tracks seem a little rawer, a little more aggressive. The other tracks, including “Temporary Ground,” sound more like White is just throwing stuff at a wall to see what sticks. They feel like intellectual exercises to me. Say what you will about the creative redundancy of putting out yet more guitar-based rock in this day and age, but it’s not an exercise in overthinking. You call those moments a temper tantrum, Antony, and I think you’re exactly right about that — but temper tantrums might be the purest emotion Jack White ever really offers us.

Mark: Your last two bits about temper tantrums were spot-on. When I was thinking about Jack White in the car yesterday, I thought the same thing. The White Stripes were menacing. Even in their slower numbers like “Seven Nation Army” there was anger. I think he writes best from that fury. Lazaretto feels like experimentation, but maybe he’s just not that kind of artist. He is a guitar player. A brilliant one. I think he’d write better songs thinking as a guitarist.

Go ahead. Say something!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s