Jack White makes heavy, turbulent modern-blues records the same way he pursues his other passion, furniture restoration: with a decisive attention to contour, color scheme and cagey, durable detail. “Three Women,” the opening rumble on Lazaretto, is based (with a co-writing credit) on Blind Willie McTell’s 1928 recording “Three Women Blues.” But White’s spin on McTell’s overload of lovin’ is a thorough redesign in density and rhythmic combat: stop-start bursts of bull-elephant march tightly rigged with coughing organ, a power-rock riff hammered on piano and White yelping “Lordy Lord!” – quoting McTell in 1933’s “Broke Down Engine” – against skidding pedal-steel guitar. Like White’s best, brawling work with the White Stripes, the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather, “Three Women” has a pocket you can sink into, and it glows with trouble.
So it goes across Lazaretto, literally a house of blues (the title is Italian for a lepers’ hospital), with each room outfitted according to White‘s mood and trials: the hip-hop seizure and hog-squeal guitar in “Lazaretto”; the bleak piano and deathangel voices in “Would You Fight for My Love?” as if Queen came from antebellum Mississippi; the crushing voodoo of “That Black Bat Licorice,” lined with nervous mandolin and scalding fiddle. “Every single bone in my brain is electric,” White crows in “Lazaretto,” acknowledging the slim line between craft and crazy in his finely wrought swerves and choruses. He knows how to make pure fun. “Just One Drink” is a thumping hybrid of Tommy Ramone-like pulse and the Rolling Stones‘ “Let It Bleed.” But there’s challenge even there. “Put a fork in the road/With me,” White sings – his gentleman’s way of saying, “My way or the highway.”
He has pretty much had it his way since the end of the last century. Lazaretto is only White’s second solo album, but he’s played on and produced dozens of records since 1999’s The White Stripes, mostly for his own Third Man label. The guy playing the brute-fuzz guitar in the Gothic-garage instrumental “High Ball Stepper” doesn’t sound like anyone’s pushover. But as in “Three Women,” White draws on older blues for these songs: prose and plays he wrote as a teenager about his busted heart and dogged ambition, sawed and planed into new settings and urgency.
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The kid is still in there. White demands control to the point of spite in the weirdly jaunty “Alone in My Home.” He also accepts isolation and suspicion as the price of self-rule. “I know what you’re thinking/What gives me the right?” he snaps in “Three Women,” to a mocking laugh of pedal-steel guitar. Yet White can’t stop looking for someone who can scale his walls and ride his trains. He sings many of these songs, like “Temporary Ground,” a ballad about sharing both comfort and fear, in close harmony with women. And for all of his lonewolf swagger, White is willing to work to beat his blues. “I can’t bring myself to take without penance . . . or sweat from my brow,” he insists in “Entitlement” – like a craftsman who feels most at home in his own shop, with his favorite tools.