There was a time, not too long ago, when we still didn’t know quite what to expect from a new Jack White album. The White Stripes were always the most avant-garde of the early-noughts garage punk revivalists: in concert, Jack was as likely to break into a snippet of a mid-’70s Captain Beefheart nugget, or “Mr. Cellophane” from Chicago, as he was to play a straight cover by Son House or Gene Vincent. Even the Raconteurs, White’s less adventurous retro-rock supergroup with power pop singer/songwriter Brendan Benson and members of Cincinnati garage rockers the Greenhornes, were capable of the occasional surprise thanks to the sheer heterogeneity of the players. And the Dead Weather, his more recent project with Alison Mosshart of the Kills and Queens of the Stone Age‘s Dean Fertita, is psychedelic stoner-metal party music that makes up for what it lacks in stylistic diversity with razor’s-edge tension and an idlike sonic playfulness.
But sometime around the release of White’s 2012 solo debut Blunderbuss, the notion of a “Jack White album” was beginning to feel codified–and his newly released followup, Lazaretto, continues the trend. In short, this is a Jack White Album through and through: it has the obligatory blues-rock workout in opener “Three Women”; it has a smattering of country songs, one of which (“Entitlement”) has off-puttingly sanctimonious lyrics just like the White Stripes’ “Effect and Cause“; and of course, it has a single-word, polysyllabic title, seemingly intended to get listeners to reach for a dictionary (and I’m sure Jack would prefer for you to consult a real, paper one, not the digital one on your tablet, you dirty philistine). Put another way, if Lazaretto wasn’t a real Jack White album, it would make an excellent parody of one.
If this sounds like a diss, it’s not really intended as one. Lazaretto is a fine album; Jack White is, as ever, a consummate craftsman and sonic technician (just check the title track, with its prog-rock synthesizer noodling and swooping violin solo). And some of the songs here stand shoulder to shoulder with anything else from his multivaried career. The aforementioned “Three Women,” adapted from “Three Women Blues” by Blind Willie McTell, swaggers with a machismo White arguably hasn’t mustered since 2003’s “Ball and Biscuit“; the roots-rocking “Just One Drink” pairs him again with his husky-voiced “Love Interruption” partner Ruby Amanfu, while demonstrating that White can in fact write a break-up song that doesn’t make him sound like an asshole; “I Think I Found the Culprit” is a haunting ballad that recalls the White Stripes’ dark-horse masterpiece Get Behind Me Satan; and what other contemporary rocker is theatrical enough to pull off a song as melodramatic as the Sergio Leone-esque “Would You Fight for My Love?”
The truth is, every iconoclastic artist eventually reaches the point of predictability: Bob Dylan, David Bowie, hell, even Prince (especially Prince). There’s no shame in popping in a Jack White album (or loading it up on Spotify, or dropping the needle on the “Ultra LP” and seeing holograms and shit because apparently this is a real thing, holy shit I want this) and knowing what to expect. It’s just that part of me misses the days when Jack White could take me by surprise with his music, and not just with his presentation. I listen to Lazaretto and feel nostalgic for the first time I heard White’s incognito guest vocals on “Danger! High Voltage” by Detroit dance-rockers Electric Six, or the way Get Behind Me Satan tossed out the rulebook just when it seemed like the Stripes’ previous record had used up all their tricks. The new Jack White Album is entertaining through and through, but it’s not going to knock anyone for a loop the way his music did ten years ago.
But hey, this is only White’s second solo album; I have faith that he has some surprises left in him. There are still plenty of places left to go–some of which are already signposted on the new record. “That Black Bat Licorice” is one of the weirder cuts I’ve heard from White in a while, with a drum part that almost sounds like reggae at times. And “Lazaretto” itself picks up where the Dead Weather’s “Blue Blood Blues” left off, finding White toying with a hip-hop vocal delivery without stooping to crass imitation. I want to see Jack White pursue these oddball touches; I’d love to see that failed Kanye West collaboration come to fruition. And sure, a new Jack White Album is never anything to sniff at. But wouldn’t it be nice if next time, we didn’t know quite what to expect?
Stream Lazaretto on Spotify if you’re not cool enough for vinyl: