Junk Mail: Jack White 'Lazaretto' Album Review By Email: Folksy Roots Revealed For Former White Stripes Frontman
Music Times writers share an office area of roughly 45 sq. ft, which makes having face-to-face conversations totally impossible. Junk Mail is these millenials' attempt to discuss and review the week's hottest album releases... without needing to look at each other.
This week: Ryan Book, Kyle Dowling, Joey DeGroot, Caitlin Carter and Carolyn Menyes email back and forth about Jack White's Lazaretto.
Ryan Book: To open this week's edition of Junk Mail, featuring Jack White's newest release Lazaretto, I'll offer two conceptual theories about the album's meaning, in order of likelihood:
A) Jack White is a sympathetic/pathetic character who kills his lover out of petty jealousy and/or desperation out of his inability to impress himself upon her. This is of course followed by his own suicide, hence the tales being related by his specter (note all the ghost references). The fact that his beloved is now dead makes his cause even tougher to accomplish.
B) The album takes place in a duotheist universe where Jack and Meg White are deities both dueling and friendly, somewhat Norse in nature. Note both male and female pronouns when referencing God, and again, relationship troubles.Obviously I just listened to this album twice and got excitable. But feel free to pick and choose themes to run with.
Carolyn Menyes: Definitely going with option B, here.That seems like the obvious choice. For some reason, though, I didn't focus much on the lyrics on Lazaretto. It's been in my regular rotation for a week, and I still don't know what he's saying half the time. Maybe it's because Jack White's voice always sounds a little bit like a squeaky guy full of marbles (I love it) but I mostly am impressed with the musical themes. I enjoy all the reprises throughout this album in regards to the riffs and even those blasts of piano. Reminds me of his live show, which is something not to be missed.
Caitlin Carter: To briefly comment on your point, Carolyn, he does use Spanish in some of his songs (or maybe just on "Lazaretto." I haven't listened that closely to all of the lyrics on the album), which could be why it sounds like gibberish if you aren't expecting it.
My favorite part of the album's construction was the element of anticipation. He switched up sounds, time signatures, moods, etc. throughout the album and even within the same song. I never felt like his next move was predictable, which kept me engaged throughout.
Joey DeGroot: Lazaretto is certainly eclectic, but that didn't make the album any more interesting for me. It pains me to say that, because I'm a huge fan of the White Stripes and Jack White's songwriting, but two albums in, his solo career just isn't doing anything for me. He can still write a guitar riff and tear through a punk-blues solo like nobody else, but without the minimalist template he had to work with for the White Stripes, his songwriting's taking a backseat. And to comment on Carolyn's point, I saw him play the title track on Jimmy Fallon the other night (I've never seen him live) and I enjoyed it way more than on record. Maybe he just wasn't able to capture this energy very well.
Kyle Dowling: Agreed. Option B is my choice. One thing I noticed after listening to Lazaretto, which is something I tend to walk away with after listening to many Jack White/White Stripes songs, is that I for some reason love his squeaky voice, his raw (often out of tune) guitar and his unique style. It's the complete opposite of any other artist I listen to. In terms of the album, I'm very much impressed by the fact that it can jump from rock to blues to country-esque quite effortlessly without sounding forced. His album is pretty much a live show, which is something I really loved.
CM: Exactly, Kyle. There's something really gross about the blend of sounds in White's music, and it's really appealing in that sort of way that you have to pay attention to nails on a chalkboard. I repeat: THIS IS A GOOD THING. Maybe it's just because I'm coming off Governors Ball, which featured a headlining set from White, but this album really does feel like his live set. He pulls from all these traditional American music genres and manages to pull it into one cohesive record. This is why Jack White is a genius. Lazaretto works on both a macro and micro level.
RB: Mainly aimed at the haters:
I lamented this to my fiancée this weekend at Governors Ball. Few solo acts have struggled to escape their pasts more so than White. Even I find myself longing for just Meg onstage with him, and a color scheme to match. But this is also ridiculous. He's not Les Claypool, but he has certainly been involved with many projects (The Dead Weather, Raconteurs, himself). All of these have been on display during his live shows...maybe he should cut the cord until we accept he's on his own now.
It's a cold fact I think many alt-rock fans need to accept before they can honestly listen to him play country-western or whatever he's feeling now. Maybe, to adjust theory B, Lazaretto is white fighting the ghost of himself.
CC: To expand upon your theory, Ryan, I read in some interview that this album was based on a short story White wrote when he was 19 and revisited recently. So the idea of fighting the ghost of himself sort of works. He wasn't in the White Stripes at that age, but he surely was developing a vision for his musical career at that time.
KD: In terms of the individual tracks, "Lazaretto" stands out just because I love the way he sings over the tune. Not to mention it's just a badass song with a lot of energy - as Joe pointed out in White's recent Fallon performance. There's also something very charming about "Alone in My Home," due to the fact that I truly dig the lyrics. My overall favorite? "That Black Bat Licorice" may take it. It holds a familiar rhythm within the tune that can be traced back to The White Stripes. And, the violin adds a very haunting feature, which I love.
CM: "That Black Bat Licorice" is probably one of the most badass tunes of 2014. Holy crap is it a big ol' stomper. There's also something distinctly creepy about it, from the women chanting "Behave yourself" to the way the guitar just drops out for those epic bumps in the middle of the verses. Everything about this song is basically flawless, in my opinion.
JD: I have to say that the title track is my favorite, probably because it's the only one I've seen performed live so far, but to dispute Ryan's point earlier, I wish he was taking his country/western sound even further than he is right now. A song like "Temporary Ground" could have been great if he had fully committed to country instead of this weird form of country rock. Hopefully one day we'll get a straight-up country album from Jack White, like his own take on Harvest, without any inclinations of rock whatsoever. I think he'd handle it nicely.
RB: A bold move indeed, Joey. But one I would support, especially considering his recent dealings with one Neil Young.
To stick with the theme of favorite tracks...I'm opting for "Would You Fight For My Love," which is essentially the summation of my theory that White plays a weak man struggling to keep his woman. He laments becoming a ghost and a number of sinister elements chip in to make this the darkest track on the album: The soulful backing vocals make the hook rock, and-stay with me here-the opening percussion segment actually takes a page from Slipknot's book, a darkened military march beat of sorts, preparing us for a battle.
CM: Oh, "That Black Bat Licorice" isn't my overall favorite song, though it's the most groovingest (it's a word) song I've heard in sometime. My personal fav would have to be "Just One Drink." Unlike Joey, I really like the exact mix of White's bluegrass/blues/rock thing on this album, it appeals largely to that part of me that went to college in Appalachia. Like I discussed with Kyle, this song has some of those really grating vocal harmonies and I love the big punches of the vocals in the chorus. Plus, it doesn't get more delightfully Americana than a track about drinking too much. God bless Jack White. I really hope he helps bring this kind of music back to the mainstream.
JD: Unless you strictly mean Top 40 music when referring to the mainstream, I'd say Jack White is the mainstream now. He just played the Tonight Show, he headlined Governors Ball (and Bonnaroo), and he was on the cover of Rolling Stone. Of course, this doesn't mean he's changed to fit the mainstream (a song with a borderline stoner-metal breakdown like "Lazaretto" isn't exactly radio friendly), but I think the mainstream is changing around him. If he took offense to the Black Keys ripping off his sound, he's gonna freak when Luke Bryan starts doing it.
Judging from all of your responses to the album, and the reviews I've seen, I guess I'm the only one who was disappointed by Lazaretto. Is there anything you guys didn't like about it? I don't like being the only Debbie Downer here.
CM: I guess I mean I hope this genre spreads, like with what Mumford & Sons did for folk music. What don't you like, Joey? Like, specifically, other than I guess the general vibes?
JD: I can't put my finger on it, I just feel that overall the songwriting and production is lacking. The performances themselves are fine, but nothing here struck me as brilliant, and the way the songs were recorded is neither visceral nor uniquely atmospheric, it doesn't leave any impression whatsoever. But I guess I'm picky.
RB: Lazaretto provides a much more streamlined vision for an album than did Blunderbuss. And much more fodder for conceptual conspiracy theorists like me. I approve.
CM: I'm really enjoying the Americana direction White is taking his music with on Lazaretto, and I definitely prefer this album to his last solo effort. The mix of blues, roots, folk, bluegrass and good ol' fashioned rock 'n' roll appeals to every sense of my musical taste. This album is also just as seamless as a Jack White live show, which definitely need to be seen (and he just extended his tour dates!). Maybe White can't escape The White Stripes quite yet and who knows if he ever will, but I'll be darned if this isn't a great launching point.
JD: I miss the White Stripes. Maybe if Jack White spent less time shooting records into space, he could write some good songs. Or songs that I like, anyway.
KD: Can someone introduce me to Jack White because I tend to love everything he does. Please and thank you.