Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Record Review - Jack White

Published in The Big Issue, June 2014.

Jack White
Third Man Records / Columbia

It’s been interesting to watch Jack White’s evolution as an artist over the past couple of decades, from a greasy-haired blues punk to the suave and sonically sophisticated gent he is today.

As he’s evolved, so too has his reputation grown; an in-demand producer, label head and collaborator, White has become a part of modern music’s fabric. His work with the seminal White Stripes, The Raconteurs and Dead Weather (along with stints with all from Alicia Keys to Neil Young), have served to heighten his standing to a level not many achieve over an entire career, let alone a mere twenty years. The success of his rather belated solo debut, Blunderbuss (2012), is simply icing on the cake.

Which is why it’s all the more interesting to listen to Lazaretto, his second foray into the ‘solo’ world, a world where there aren’t too many places to hide – this is where White is properly on display, where one can truly evaluate and, hopefully, appreciate his continuing evolution.

Lazaretto is an interesting beast however, in that it’s not quite sure what it is. Is it an impossibly crunchy, staccato-riffed semi-rap like the title track? Is it a lethargic blues/rock stretch out, complete with junky piano as ‘High Ball Stepper’ suggests? Or is it a fiddle and pedal steel-led country lament, with a slight pop bent, a la ‘Temporary Ground’ (with superb, lilting backing vocals from Lillie Mae Rische)?

It’s not a comfortable listen by any stretch, it’s more an adventure, a blindfolded wander through a clutch of jumbled rooms, each more mystifying and cluttered than the last. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s increasingly been White’s MO to stretch boundaries, to challenge people’s perceptions of existing genres, and to that end, with Lazaretto he’s succeeded.

And maybe that’s all he needs to do – present new ideas with which people can do what they will. For someone of White’s standing, this is indeed acceptable, although perhaps not without delusions of grandeur – many may yearn for the simplicity of those early years when it was all about the up and down fuzz and grind.

Overall, Lazaretto is much more a collection of 11 songs than it is an album, which at first seems odd for a nu-traditionalist like White. But then again, these 11 songs wouldn’t fit on any other album, even if surrounded by similarly styled tunes. Confusing, no? Well, that’s just how Jack White likes it, as his continued evolution suggests.

Samuel J. Fell

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