Just as days are both short and long, often dragging and flying in equal measure depending on who they belong to, it’s both unbelievable and completely feasible that Lazaretto is Jack White’s 12th studio album in 15 years. Mind-blowing, because while once an artist would easily knock out a couple of LPs a year (15 years after their own debuts, Bob Dylan was on LP #17, while Paul McCartney was on #21 and Johnny Cash on #26) it’s almost unheard of today, due to the pressures of promotion and touring.
Of course, this takes into account White’s time as one half of The White Stripes and a quarter of both The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, while McCartney’s covers Wings too; but with both it’s difficult to dispute the fact that it’s due to the name and the legacy of the frontman that these other projects were so successful. Wings without McCartney? An ex-Moody Blues guitarist, a frontwoman with a pleasant – but not particularly memorable – voice and almost as many drummers as Spinal Tap, recording reggae music on a farm in Scotland.
But, of course, when your recordings are record breakers it’s all in a days work: For this year’s Record Store Day celebrations, White released a live recording of the title-track in under four hours. “Lazaretto” channels bluesy beats and traditional country twists, while leaving space for those trademark stamps: A vocal that meanders between playful yelps and heart-wrenching screams, as well as guitar work that uses similar techniques to portray its own identity. (At times, the dipping-bass and tiny electronic ticks are almost reminiscent of rap, or at the very least are begging to be sampled.)
When not channelling both key sounds, one or the other can usually be traced with ease. The bass-breaks and jerky-keys of opener “Three Women” play out between almost humorous lines of description (“Red, blonde and brunette… They must be getting something cause they come and see me every night”) alongside guitar work like some of Hendrix’s bluesiest blasts (“Red House”, “Here My Train A Comin’”), while the drums that keep his beat will always be reminiscent of Meg’s simple structures. Here, however, the outcome is something much deeper and more elaborate than similarly-styled White Stripes numbers. “That Black Licorice Bat” is equally playful, both lyrically and melodically, while continuing to thump heavy-handed melodies that swing through theatrics. At times Led Zeppelin-esque, and at others once again teasing with hip-hop heavy tendencies (both the sultry female repetition of “Behave yourself” at the introduction, and White’s vocal-only lines, “I want to cut out my tongue and let you hold on to it for me, cause without my skills to amplify my sounds it might get boring”) it’s as if the entire Django Unchained soundtrack has been compressed into one song.
When in country mode, White the romanticist pours through the words like water into whisky, with “Temporary Ground” a stunning, gentle piano-lead male/female duet (and very “Dolly”), while the slow count-in to “Entitlement” welcomes stunning plucking and a sense of undeniable angst, in some of his most simple, honest lyrics (“At a time when everybody feels entitled why can’t I feel entitled too?”). While “Would You Fight For My Love?” begins with dramatic, soundtrack-like chords it too soon shows itself as an honest documentation of heartbreak (“It’s not enough that I love you”). At times, despite the fact that this is his 12th collection of compositions, it’s often as if Lazaretto is Jack White at his most vulnerable. Although never shying away from the exaggerated elements that make some of these numbers sound like they’re leaking above and below saloon doors, the multi-band frontman sings of “becoming a ghost so nobody can touch me” (“Alone In My Home”), although to many, and particularly with this collection, White’s short career has long been untouchable.