AND SO POST-MILLENNIAL ROCK'S one indisputable icon of substance emerges from the blue corner for Round Two. Again, he’s bruised, but swinging. On 2012’s Blunderbuss, our hero was depicted, stormy faced, with just a vulture for company. Here, his buddies aren’t even animate beings: in a Prussian blue tonic suit, he sits enthroned, surrounded by angelic statues, as he glowers off to our left.
“Alone In My Home evokes the star in a cob-webbed gothic mansion, broken and weeping.”
This austere and bitterly lonesome scene is mirrored within, in pretty much every word White utters. At worst, Alone In My Home finds him – or his song’s wholly fictional narrator – in a cruel state of solitary confinement, imprisoned in his own quarters, “so nobody can know me”. In his isolation he’s “becoming a ghost”, wracked by “lost feelings of love, that hover above me”, and by paranoia about his few visitors who “claim to be held from me in chains”, but are actually “guilty as sin, my dear”. How tempting it is to apportion these sentiments to White himself, whose increasingly bitter divorce from his second wife, Karen Elson, reached a settlement in December 2013; briefly, a restraining order barred him from seeing their two children. Given those circumstances, Alone In My Home evokes the star rattling around alone in a cob-webbed gothic Nashville mansion, broken and weeping like Orson Welles at the end of Citizen Kane. The union forever? There is no true love.
While Blunderbuss often presented a Freudian nightmare vision of the battle of the sexes, where daemonic temptresses in spike-heels sank the lifeboats of despairing males, much of its successor is rooted in a more grown-up waking world. The curtain raiser is a reading of Blind Willie McTell’s Three Women Blues. Jack aficionados will recall The White Stripes’ version of McTell’s Lord, Send Me An Angel, in which the tremblingly reverent 25-year-old only dared approach such a vintage blues dressed in child-like red-and-white, so his awareness of his inauthenticity as a bluesman was clear to all.
Here, staggeringly emboldened, his Three Women departs almost totally from the original 1928 script. Far from Blind Willie’s swaggering promiscuity, White casts himself as a romantic refusenik. In a spiritual echo of Love Interruption from Blunderbuss, he wonders, “How come I gotta have a woman/To blow these blues away?” He also changes his female distinctions from colour of skin to colour of hair, locates them in California, Detroit and Nashville, and uses “a digital photograph to pick which one I like”.
His point arrives in the final verse: “I know what you’re thinking, what gives me the right… but what gives YOU the right?” This updated Three Women is surely about privacy in the age of internet tittletattle, celebrity obsession and media intrusion – that vacuous culture which, during his divorce proceedings, salivated over every salacious revelation, and cluelessly judged him as the villain. If that accounts for the track’s verbal fury, its musical energy comes from White setting himself the task of delivering a blues without recourse to guitars, electric or acoustic. Its oomph derives instead from sticksman Daru Jones’ funky battery, counterpointed piano and organ, artful pedal steel and, at the last, hyperactive blasts of harmonica.
Unprecedentedly, White, who cut 2003’s epochal Elephant in three weeks and resisted retouches in the lengthy pre-release period, spent a whopping 18 months on Lazaretto. For the recording, he used his two live bands, the all-male Buzzards and the femme-centric Peacocks. Would You Fight For My Love?, incredibly, features both, playing simultaneously in separate rooms at Third Man, the engineer ‘punching’ between the two, live to tape.
“White’s out to challenge urban producers like Pharrell and Jay Z.”
Even more outlandishly, White, once the rootsy analogue revisionist, has embraced ProTools, chiefly as an editing facility. He’s out to challenge urban producers like Pharrell and Jay Z, and wants his music to be regarded as every bit as modern and groundbreaking as theirs.
So, the title track ups the ante on The Dead Weather’s I Cut Like A Buffalo, bridging between spangly near-dubstep keyboard noises and a bitchin’ guitar solo and bluegrass fiddle break. Similarly, Zeppelinesque instrumental High Ball Stepper rollercoasters between Ruby Amanfu’s haunting “Wooo-oo-ooo”, scrambling jazz piano, and more savagely distorted six-string action from the maître d’ (he says the track simply “refused lyrics”).
But if one of Lazaretto’s gravitational forces is innovation, as if White is fleeing his pains in the musical unknown, the other is an enduring love of tradition. Temporary Ground broods in an exquisite Appalachian country style, yet castigates God, for leaving its author “with an illusion of a home”. Equally rustic, and blissfully weary, Entitlement ruminates both on contemporary youth’s belief that the world is theirs (White habitually refers to them as the ‘take’ generation), and the unspecified curbing of White’s own freedoms.
White has the dignity not to detail his woes à la Marvin Gaye on Here, My Dear, yet his recent experiences have clearly fed into this record, whether it be Want And Able’s highly pointed concluding lines (“I want to see you… but that’s not possible, something simply will not let me”), or the title Lazaretto (a quarantine station or leper colony), or the all-pervasive molten energy. He even gets the cold shoulder on the rollicking Just One Drink. At a couple of numbers shorter than its predecessor, Lazaretto packs a hell of a punch. Whether any of its riffs will be converted into Seven Nation Army-style terrace chants in Rio these next few weeks remains to be seen, but it’s still another high-achieving, high-scoring treat.
Watch the video for the title track: