Jack White is starting to sound an awful lot like the neighborhood curmudgeon, the old crank sitting on his front porch with a 40-ounce bottle of cheap beer, screaming “Get off my lawn!” at the kids. On “Lazaretto,” his second solo album-proper, White comes off like a mess, a man coming apart at the seams, angry at the world and befuddled by its ways. The disorganized heap of songs that comprise this new album sound as if the prime motivation behind their creation was not love, or art, or even money, but simply plain old spite.
And yet, this is some of White’s best work, as contradictory as such a statement might sound. He is, after all, a hoarder, a collector of the ephemera of some bygone age that may or may not have existed, when the men dressed like gangsters, women hung around as lovely arm-dressing, and the guitars were made from materials you could pick up down at the local junk yard. White’s notion of “authenticity” seems to prize the urgency of punk, the primal intensity of dirty blues, and the offhanded arrogance of garage-rock naiveté above all things. He’s not so much a composer as he is a rearranger of previously existing artifacts. So the Elmore James-meets the MC-5 strut and grind of “Lazaretto’s” opener, “Three Women” is White doing what White does best. It’s a trifle of a song, and its lyrics – which seem to boast of the narrator having women in various ports of call , though it’s not at all likely White is being autobiographical here, since he tends to favor play-acting over personal revelation as a lyricist – are close to banal. But it has an abundance of gritty, greasy and grimy charm.
The balance of the album finds White in full-on howling garage-blues persona, and features some truly disturbing guitar playing, of the sort that might peel the paint off your walls. (This is one of White’s true gifts – his ability to channel rage through blistering blues-based guitar solos played on junk-shop guitars.) The odd bits of balladry offer balance for an album that favors the explosively disgusting guitars propelling “High Ball Stepper” or the shock therapy disguised as music that is the gloriously greasy title tune. “Just One Drink” is White getting his “Exile On Main St.” on, and it works. “Alone In My Room” is slightly off-kilter roots music with one of the album’s strongest melodies gracing a fairly conventional song structure. “Want and Able” sends the listener on his way with the closest thing we’re likely to get from White resembling genuine tenderness.
You don’t get much from White in the warm-and-fuzzy department, but then, that’s never been his thing. Like White’s public persona, “Lazaretto” comes across as snarky, off-putting, and at times, a touch self-righteous. But these songs rock, consistently, and are presented in a sonic environment that sounds inspired, organic, and convincing. This album won’t make you want to hang out with White, but man, it’s gonna sound great blasting out of your car when you’re cruising around with the windows open this summer.
– Jeff Miers