Jack White’s best songs, presented in whatever incarnation currently strikes him, have always shared a sense of confident desperation—he’s a bad motherfucker and he knows it, but he’s never done proving it to the rest of the world. That’s part of the reason every record he’s been a part of—from The White Stripes’ unassailable catalog to The Raconteurs and Dead Weather to his relatively recent solo jaunts—feels like an event. His albums are utterly alive, and when the songwriting lives up to that crackling energy, something special happens.
Lazaretto, his second solo album, deliberately dials back some of that potential energy, and at first blush it feels a little more mannered than a Jack White record ought to, a little fussed-over, even, which seems antithetical to his whole persona. It turns out he took forever to make it, in Jack White terms, anyway: Recorded over more than a year with contributions from both his all-male and all-female backing bands (The Buzzards and The Peacocks, respectively) and various other players, it’s far more produced than its predecessor, Blunderbuss, not to mention anything The White Stripes ever committed— quickly and dirtily—to tape.
But it works, at least partly because White’s version of a big production is more about layering sounds until he hits on something right, rather than polishing something until its defining cracks fade away. When things get too studied, as they start to on “Three Women” and “Would You Fight For My Love?,” he seems to realize it, and adds a little stink. And when he hits the perfect combination of bluster and songcraft, Lazaretto transcends: The title track is slinky and mean, and features both an electric violin and the lyric “every single bone in my brain is electric.” Killer instrumental “High Ball Stepper” doesn’t need words to convey the record’s sentiment, and then “Just One Drink” kicks off the album’s better second half in a very White Stripes-y way.
When things slow down, they don’t have quite the impact White wants them to. The gentle, ballad-like “Entitlement” might’ve played better as a standalone single, and album closer “Want And Able” (part of a planned trilogy that started with The White Stripes’ “Effect And Cause”) is saved more by its sounds—and a cleverly doubled vocal—than its sentiment. But those are mild complaints for an album that’s otherwise so successful at distilling a singular vision into something both gut-punching and sonically intriguing.