Jack White digs old suits, old guitars, old scuzzy licks. The Pale Riffer cuts his own vinyl records in his Third Man shop, an indie valhalla in Nashville. He likes old words, too. His 2012 Grammy-nominated LP, Blunderbuss, was named after an 18th century muzzle-loading firearm, a no-nonsense weapon just like the dude himself. His latest LP, Lazaretto, refers to a quarantine hospital, a place for outcasts, a place he'd no doubt feel at home.
In related news, Lazaretto debuted Tuesday as the No. 1 album on iTunes, a sign that for all his retro insistence, the 38-year-old iconoclast is very much a modern salve for today's music fans weary of digital artifice. Jack's never been a dull boy; from the White Stripes to the Raconteurs to the Dead Weather, the Detroit native has always been a restless creative spirit with little use for subtlety. But great chunks of Lazaretto, his second solo album, show White unhinged and unfettered by modern restraints like never before, an old-school guitar god whippin' up some rock 'n' raunch.
Heck, the album's "first single" (he doesn't really do singles) is an instrumental, no words necessary. High Ball Stepper is four minutes of switchblade mood and 'tude, something to be played loud in a fake-wood-paneled basement circa 1976. The distorted garage riff is so thick you can almost see it, taste it. It's only a matter of time before director Quentin Tarantino co-opts the crunchy cut to soundtrack a slo-mo bank robbery or someone losing a limb.
White is playing with a grudge, making Blunderbuss sound polished and fussed-over in comparison. He took a shot at fellow gutter-rock revivalists the Black Keys in a recent Rolling Stone, staking a claim that he was here first. But hey, if he needed a little competition to fire him up — he's also getting who's-better heat from Texas blues prodigy Gary Clark Jr. — all the better for us.
That said, the whole lot of them owe a nod to Mick, Keith and the Rolling Stones, who did it best and first, slathering slithery sex over a rock-blues cocktail of guitars, boogie piano and roadhouse hooks. "You drink water, I drink gasoline / One of us is happy, one of us is mean," White wails on the slugfest Just One Drink, a song that would fit in fine on Stones classic Exile on Main St.
That robust cut — with Lillie Mae Rische's taunting fiddle part — also signals another driving force on Lazaretto: White's 2013 divorce with model Karen Elson. Many songs are agitated by love gone wrong, from the opener, a reworking of Blind Willie McTell's Three Women Blues, to the stalking menace of Would You Fight for My Love?, with its heavy piano, baroque backing vocals and grinding guitar moan just below the surface. Both tracks are cool but creepy, which sums up Jack pretty well.
Lazaretto falters and flutters in a few places, usually when White calms down, unplugs, proves he could use an editor to save him from noodling and navel-gazing. Such is his whined alley-cat howl, he's always been more convincing as a rabblerouser than a balladeer. A growling stomp of a record shouldn't close with the dull beige twirls of Want and Able. But hey, Jack's his own boss, that's part of his rogue charm. We can only wait on his whims. Enjoy the riot while you can.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.