June 4, 2014

Lazaretto: The first listen is fortunately not a case of staircase wit

For anyone who feels the same as the anonymous troll who posted a comment a while back blasting me for my fan-girlism, just click away now and pretend you never saw this page of the internet 'cause I'm going to babble about Jack White's new record, Lazaretto.  Its official release date is next Tuesday, June 10th, but as a member of the Vault whose name begins with the right letter for a change, I got it a handful of days early.  The subscription package it came in includes not only a split-color version of the Ultra LP, but also a 45rpm 7" of  demos of two songs from the album and a hard-bound book of lyrics, images, and notes about the record.  I was as excited about that book as about the record itself, as I adore both lyric sheets and any insight I can gather into the creation of art.

When I opened up my package this evening and slid all the pieces out, my first thought was "Damn, the book is so small".  It's only about 6 x 7 inches in size, which obviously implied that photos would be small and insights limited.  But then I opened it and read the first page, a play in one act entitled The Admitting of Patience, and, before I even read the next page or unwrapped the album, found myself standing in my kitchen reduced to weeping.  

It's things like that short little one-page, three-character play, just like the liner notes of the first White Stripes album, that I identify with so strongly that they reach through my ribcage, grab my heart, and move me to tears.  They're also the things that make it so hard to separate Jack's words from him, to hear them as stories, the way he wants them to be heard, instead of as confessions or exposures of some kind.  He talks about such things in interviews-- sometimes directly, sometimes implied-- and then he writes about them and it's pretty much impossible to not make assumptions.  I've gone through that, analyzing (or over-analyzing, as the troll accused me of) the shit out of his lyrics with friends, analyzing him through his lyrics, but for what?  Yeah, the man is as intriguing as they come, but what does thinking I understand him get me?  And the stories are fascinating in their own right, as much as any novel or film that deals in love, relationships (intimate and otherwise), and human nature.  So I'll take Jack at his word and view the pronouns in his songs as something pliable, come up with my own faces and figures for them, let the stories play in my mind's eye with characters of my own making.

Three Women is an easy one to impute to Jack himself, considering the hair colors and cities mentioned in the song, but then he goes and credits Blind Willie McTell as co-writer in the liner notes and it becomes even more obvious than it needs to be that this song is an homage.  It's Jack making it clear that he's following the lineage of the old blues storytellers, the family that it's always been his goal to be a part of.  In that regard, it's completely fitting that this one begins the album.

Lazaretto, the title track, puts me in mind of Icky Thump's Little Cream Soda, with its conversation with a God who answers with no answer at all.  But while Little Cream Soda's protagonist is lost and wandering, feeling that he's getting nowhere, the hero of Lazaretto may be imprisoned and trying to escape, but is in no way lost. He knows who and what he is and it's clear this quarantine situation ain't gonna last long.

(Remember:  All pronouns, Jack's and mine here, are completely flexible and substitutable.)

Temporary Ground is a song I slightly dreaded hearing the first time, as there's a snippet of it in a recent NPR interview that makes it sound as if backing vocalist Lillie Mae Rische dominates the song.  I've never been a fan of female singers, there's something about pretty female voices that has just always turned me off.  Rische sounds a lot like Emmylou Harris on the snippet I'd heard and I was indignant that Jack might ruin an otherwise lovely song by overwhelming it with a sound that's always made me cringe.  But damned if he didn't make the song overall so beautiful that I found myself overlooking her voice and focusing on his, the music, and the words.  One line in particular reached out to me right away-- "Screaming without sound"-- reminding me of a conversation waaaay back in high school in which I talked with a friend about being desperately unhappy and she told me that I shouldn't keep my problems inside, all to myself, that I shouldn't "scream silently".  I've no idea yet what the rest of the song might be about, but that line alone creates a connection for me, one worth ignoring an annoying female voice for.

I think that Would You Fight For My Love? is a song meant to be played live.  I heard it that way earlier this year at Record Store Day and felt that it strongly resembled the Raconteurs song Blue Veins.  While the latter song is a declaration of love and trust and this one struck me as more anguished, the drama of it was comparable.  Jack writes in the book that it's constructed of three separate songs and I wonder if that's why it's lacking in passion on the record, because it wasn't just one outpouring.  In the studio version, it's just not as effective as Blue Veins is on Broken Boy Soldiers, but I think that, like Blue Veins, it will become something else altogether when played live, when Jack is wired from feeding off of an audience and pours all of his energy and passion into it.  

High Ball Stepper blew me away when I first heard it back at the beginning of April, when this album was first announced.  I loved that Jack introduced the album to the world with an instrumental track, and it surprised me that I loved this so much. I get into music through words and voice, especially Jack's music, so to love an instrumental track so much was completely unexpected.  But I listened to it on repeat for days without feeling that anything was lacking.  It's buzzing and vicious and literally, physically, feels as if it's scraping my sternum.

Just One Drink is like Missing Pieces, from Blunderbuss, for me.  The old story Jack learned from Son House of "ain't it hard when you love someone who don't love you", told fairly conventionally but with great imagery.

Jack writes in a section of the book "i got so sick and tired of editing these songs at times, frustrated, and disinterested, only to find myself in love with the song the next day and drawn back in.  the challenges that keep you up at night, that seem to cause strain, sometimes are the locked door that once opened, relieves you of other stresses in your life.  music does that a lot for me, and it makes me scared to think of what could ever take it's place".  Replace "music" with "love" or "friendship" or any other word that involves our dealings with other people and life in general, and he's really on to something.

Ghosts are mentioned a few times on this record, and in the thanks at the end of the book.  All those mentions remind me strongly of the song that initially yanked me into his music, 300mph Torrential Outpour Blues, with its opening line of "calling out to ghosts that are no longer there".  The song on Lazaretto that's the most full of ghosts is Alone In My Home, and here again I was brought to tears.  It echoes too many of my own thoughts and feelings, the feeling of being separate from the rest of the human race, some sort of alien in a crowd of people.  Like 300mph Blues, it hits way too close to home and, yeah, the pun is fully intended.

And yet again, That Black Bat Licorice brings to mind songs from Icky Thump, the record that introduced me to his music.  It's got the same witty and whimsical wordplay as tunes like 300mph Blues, Little Cream Soda, Rag & Bone, and Martyr For My Love For You.  I've no idea what the hell the metaphors and references in this song mean, but it doesn't matter. Again, the imagery is so fucking pervasive and vivid that you can get lost in it. Marry that imagery to crazily driving music and vocal delivery and, like Rag and Bone, it's almost too easy to miss the parts that are meant to make you think.

Comments from people who'd listened to Entitlement before I was able to immediately branded it as Jack's most blatant "cranky old man" song, to the point that I was completely taken aback to find it so damned pretty.  The music is lovely, as is his delivery of the words.  To me, he brilliantly softened the edges of what other people have taken as a complaint and, again, given those who are willing to accept it as such something to think about.

It's going to take me a while to figure out the story of I Think I Found the Culprit, and I've got no problem with that.  I can't help, though, but be reminded of an interaction I had with him a few years ago in the Vault chatroom, when I popped in only to find he was there, being inundated with questions from dozens of people, and I began to tell the story of The Crow and The Magpies, an allegory of the chat experience when he's there.  I got as far in my tale as describing a flock of magpies descending around the crow when he threw out the line "two magpies together but silent".  And here, in this song, two birds perfectly still. Lovely little personal coincidence that means absolutely nothing but still makes me smile.

If for no other reason, I love Want and Able for the fact that it's truly Jack solo.  Two tracks, one of his voice accompanied by himself on piano, and another of him singing along with himself on acoustic guitar.  It's simple and beautiful and I wish there were more like it (Temporary Ground, for example).  The story's a universal one, though I find it interesting that a very meaningful bit of the lyrics that are in the book were left out on the record.  Also interesting that the genders were switched from the time of writing to the time of recording, a great example of how fluidly Jack's pronouns should be perceived.  

Love or hate this record, there's so much wisdom buried in the words of these songs. And there's the irony, the contradiction that Jack has always summed up and presented so well-- Wisdom doesn't make life any easier.  Understanding these elements of human nature doesn't keep us from fucking up, from tripping in the minefields constantly laid by ourselves and others.  And this is why his stories resonate.  They're our stories as well as his own. 


Anonymous said...

This is the best description of Lazaretto I have read! It's so good to know he has fans who appreciate the immense efforts and thoughts put into the music!

KaliDurga said...

Thank you, whomever you are. I'm glad you got something out of my babbling.