Jack White’s recent swipe at the Black Keys—an inveterate impersonator calling out his own supposed imitators—seems on the surface like an irrelevant bit of infighting, the old pro guarding his territory against aggressive young upstarts. Conveniently timed to the release of Lazaretto, however, it’s less a trifling jab than a statement of intent, a reminder of White’s self-appointed status as modern rock’s designated old soul. This is especially pertinent considering the content of the album, which finds him moving away from roots-rock influences and more toward a personalized style that nominally incorporates those influences. A Detroit native now based in Nashville, White puts a lot of stock in his vested position as the gatekeeper for previous generations of Americana. Yet as his career progresses, this status gets reflected less in the actual music he’s recording and more in corollary maneuvers: old-guard-artist collaboration projects, producing gigs, and general mystique.
Lazaretto is full of brash, forceful songs, further indulging the intense id formerly balanced by the White Stripes’ sweet-and-salty duality, the wild carnival barker side given to high-flown pronouncements and demented rock swagger. This is another outgrowth of White’s old-time affectations, the sort of cocky bluster that started with the blues, expanding accordingly when the genre went electric. White pushes it further than ever here, on jagged songs which, while fundamentally rooted in blues tropes, could never be confused as remotely traditional, favoring a ragged, piecemeal collection of sounds united by noisy attitude and gonzo lyricism.
This is alternatively electrifying and exasperating. The album kicks off with “Three Women,” essentially a country song chucked by its collar into the modern world, with squealing electric guitar, overdriven organ, and processed harmonica, not to mention lyrical intimations of online dating. It’s followed by “Lazaretto,” an oddball stomper over which White is basically rapping; it’s worth nothing how similar the approach here is to that of fellow Detroit revisionist Kid Rock, a comparison White sloughs off as the song devolves into twisted psychedelia, another archetypal influence pitched cavalierly into the mix. Peaking with the sweet, poppy bounce of “Alone in My Home,” and concluding gently with “Want and Able,” Lazaretto seems bound only by a routinely manic intensity and its flagrantly rough use of traditional sounds, otherwise affecting a grab-bag configuration, tossing both classic rock and its blues and country forebears into a blender. It’s interesting listening, but there’s also something irritating about how hard White jockeys for weird-genius status, the stream of consciousness-spouting lyrics and hard-driving belligerence underlining even ostensibly low-key songs.
Yet while many of these tracks seem a bit too confrontational, White again manages to avoid repetition, consistently finding new avenues for his loud, frantic appropriation and expansion. Blunderbuss was for all intents and purposes a pop album, a weirder shine on the stuff he’d been doing all along with the White Stripes. Lazaretto pushes even further in its presentation of strange, misshapen song structures, coming off as kaleidoscopically fragmentary and incendiary. Despite White’s prevailing image, his work here is less about keeping old styles alive than mining them for continued self-inflation, which seems like a reasonable next step in the continuum of rock, a genre that’s always been about finding new, more aggressive ways to pump up individual cults of personality. Just as bebop and modal supernovaed into free jazz as the genre slid into irrelevance, rock’s disappearance from the modern mainstream has edged White into an ever-more fragmented, antagonistic approach, intensifying proprietary feelings over the influences instrumental to this concoction.