In 1799, after one-tenth of the population of Philadelphia perished with yellow fever six years earlier, the city built a quarantine station to house the infected in an attempt to control any further epidemics. Known as a Lazaretto, the hospital – the first of its kind in the US – would detain and examine ships’ passengers and cargo suspected of contagion.
As the title of Jack White’s second album, however, one would interpret this as a reference to his own period of rehabilitation. But is it forced or voluntary?
Coming two years after his debut ‘Blunderbuss’, a vitriol-filled purge that dropped in the wake of White’s divorce, ‘Lazaretto’ does sound like a transitional step. Recorded individually with each of his backing bands – the all-male Buzzards and all-female Peacocks – the songs convey a post-closure sureness; indeed, opener ‘Three Women’ is White’s brazen introduction to his concurrent concubines. His band, taking turns for frantic fleeting solos, share his newfound joy.
Of course, the title track – aptly pierced with shrill guitars – finds Jack “Quarantined on the Isle Of Man / Trying to escape any way that I can”, but that reluctance has, by ninth track ‘That Black Bat Licorice’, lapsed into an appeal for solitary captivity again, perhaps to restore his reason once more. “I fantasise about the hospital, the army, asylum, confinement in prison,” he sings, over rhythms as uneven as his moods; “Any place where there’s a cot to clear my visions.”
So, while his recovery is celebratory, there are still nagging criticisms he needs to expunge in the meantime.
‘Temporary Ground’, a folky duet with fiddler Lillie Mae Rische, conjures Alice In Wonderland-like ideals of freedom, where one can float off across oceans. It’s a dream Jack noticeably covets. Both the gothic scorned love song ‘Would You Fight For My Love?’ and the bubbly, piano-led ‘Alone In My Home’ allude to his “becoming a ghost”, a desolate thought, but one allowing autonomy and isolation.
Like thorns on prize roses, his vivid songs still cut. ‘Just One Drink’, a boisterous Stones-like country rocker, burns with unrequited love. ‘Entitlement’, a dulcet pedal-steeled waltz, questions supposed privileges, but concludes with Jack – much like Dan Brown’s self-flagellating albino monk – inflicting pain for penance: “We don’t deserve a single damn thing,” he cries, defeated.
But he really needn’t be so hard on himself. He’s earned his claim for liberation – it’s not hard to sympathise with someone who, after having endured a tough time in public, quite fancies some time to himself. And if his therapy should sound as emotionally potent and passionate as this, then perhaps a visit to this ‘Lazaretto’ should be prescribed for everyone.
Words: Simon Harper
- - -
- - -