I finally have to deal with the moment that I’ve been dreading for weeks now, and that’s a discussion of Jack White’s latest solo album Lazaretto. It’s not a matter of disappointment with the record, or anything along those lines–in fact, I think it’s a pretty good record. The problem instead is that I feel I have no particular insight specific to this record to offer at all. As per the usual, White dabbles in different old-timey styles, while often adding a unique personal touch: here’s a more traditional folk song;, here’s the song where he inverts blues conventions and utilizes bizarre guitar tones, etc. It’s not that it’s formulaic, but at this point the audience should have a good idea in their minds of what a Jack White record sounds like, especially now that we have a variety of post-White Stripes work to analyze.
Of course, this doesn’t stop others from attempting to postulate on the supposed themes of the album, or worse yet, divine some sort of grand theory behind Jack White the artist and what it means for Our Culture. As one of the few cross-generational “rock stars”, White is a figure that no matter what he does is going to generate some interest, or at the very least some page views. Beyond learning about his origins, considering how striking the White Stripes were in contrast with the contemporary music scene, for the most part I never indulged in this impulse. To me, beyond chuckling at a few articles about his various idiosyncracies (who doesn’t love a good “record release by balloon” story?), Jack White was a guy that wrote a lot of great rock songs, and some that were not-so-great. My one concession to this line of thinking is the fact that my favorite Jack White moment is the beginning scene of It Might Get Loud, where he constructs a makeshift guitar out of various spare parts.
The scene helps show a lot of what I love about White as an artist–his practical ingenuity, his love of cheap crap, his ability to find music from the unlikeliest of sources, and the pure emotion that he puts into his music. I enjoyed Jack White before seeing the documentary, but I came away with a new-found appreciation about him as an artist.* The documentary also is worth mentioning because it helps define my critical viewpoint of Jack White: it’s usually one that’s in opposition to someone else.
I know that it sounds like the douchebaggiest position imaginable, but in reality it works as more of a grounding influence. “The White Stripes suck”/”Actually, they’re a pretty good band that shows how limits can actually result in even more creativity”; “The White Stripes are the best band in rock’n’roll”/”They’re really good, but come on, there’s a lot of filler in their catalog and you can’t say that every detour Jack White takes is one worth exploring”; “Jack White is a shit guitarist”/”He knows how to wring pure emotion out of his guitar, and the seemingly odd melodic choices are there for a reason–he’s not just randomly choosing notes, unless it’s in specifically appropriate circumstances”; “I never want to hear ‘Steady as She Goes’ ever again”/”…We agree on this.” I think that White Blood Cells and De Stijl are the Stripes’ best albums, with Get Behind Me Satan a severely underrated number three, especially considering how White was able to organically expand the sound with pianos and marimbas and still have it sound natural, and that Elephant despite its high points is not their magnum opus. I also believe that the solos in “Icky Thump” sound like an electric dog fart, and hearing that song in heavy rotation while I was working full-time as a DJ has to rank as the worst part of an otherwise great job. But I could listen to the guitar in “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” forever.
At this point, it makes sense that Jack White continue as a solo artist; even though a lot of this discussion centers on his work with Meg White, his solo work does allow him to indulge in different styles outside of the pigeonhole he created with the self-imposed barriers of The White Stripes. And the listener has benefited as a result, and it’s led to some thrilling results. You’ll find some of the most amazing displays of pure musicianship anywhere at one of his live shows; it was amazing to watch how in sync the band was with one another, especially the drummer, as Jack would change tempos and arrangements often on a whim.
Yet, amid all this general awe, there is little that is particularly memorable about White’s solo work. There are no immediately identifiable high points, like “Fell In Love With A Girl” or “Ball and a Biscuit”; I kind of remember “Love Interruption”, but that’s only because it got fairly significant airplay and I still had to think a bit before I could remember its melody. This is essentially the problem that I have with Lazaretto as well–when it’s done, I feel like I just listened to a good album. Ten minutes later, if you asked me about any favorite moment, I would be stumped. No matter how much I admire the music, there is still that little extra that is somehow missing to make it truly great.
Still, I’m going to be on the lookout for the next time Jack stops by the Northwest.
*My opinions about Jimmy Page were completely confirmed, however, as he displayed once again that he is the most overrated guitar player in existence. I cannot stand his extremely sloppy playing, and that’s on top of his lack of creativity. At one point he was playing one of his old Zeppelin songs, and he kept fumbling and making mistakes, and I had to think “Couldn’t they have done at least another take?”