Jack White’s second solo album, Lazaretto, has become quite an event in the world of vinyl. The Telegraph in the UK reported a few days ago that in a very short space of time this recording has become the highest selling vinyl pressing for the past 20 years. Examining the product, it’s not hard to imagine why.
White demonstrates a personal commitment to the format that goes well beyond a mandatory pressing of the digital album. The record exploits the medium with all manner of trickery designed to have audiophiles salivating.
Even getting started requires some trial and error for the average listener, with Side A playing from the centre outwards. One can only imagine how many customers marched back to their retailer complaining that the record was faulty (if you play it conventionally from the outside you just get a locked groove).
Then we have Side B offering alternate introductions to opening track “Just One Drink”. Depending on where the needle drops you will hear either an acoustic or electric introduction before the grooves meet up with the song proper.
There’s also a hologram that appears when a light is shone on the inner rim of Side A as it spins, there are locked grooves at the end of each side, and Side B has a unique matte finish. A further trick that I have yet to unlock is the hidden tracks that lie under the centre labels on either side, one that plays at 45 and the other at 78. While I am told they are designed to play through the label, my record player only picks up hiss.
The tricks give the record a sense of playfulness and adventure: this is more than a simple start to finish affair. It’s as if White is rewarding the growing number of listeners who are preferencing vinyl over digital formats.
The question, though, is whether these features amount to anything more than a gimmick. It takes a certain amount of arrogance to put out something like this. The only way such arrogance can be justified is by the product itself, and thankfully White’s music lives up to the hype. The album sounds incredible and demands repeated listens, both through headphones and speakers, each time offering something new.
At alternate moments the ears are assaulted by aggressive, distorted guitars and then soothed by softer sounds. But even in its loudest moments the soundscape leaves room to hear the individual instruments: pianos, Hammond organs and violins are clearly heard in all their glory.
White has created something quite rare here: a modern blues album. In the late sixties bands like Led Zeppelin, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Doors took the blues and made it their own. Since then most attempts at the blues (beyond the 12 bar variety) have just ended up sounding like Led Zeppelin. But White creates his own kind of blues, celebrating its legacy while never sounding derivative.
The best example of this is in the opening track “Three Women”, an adaption of blues classic “Three Women Blues” by Blind Willie McTell (even crediting McTell as co-writer). While the original laments the problem of having three women at once, White seems to invert the idea, having some fun with it in the process: he recognises there are problems and offers no solutions, but let’s face it it’s a good position to be in!
While White appears to enjoy being lyrically obtuse (he claims that the songs originated from stories and plays he wrote as teenager), themes of isolation, death and the breakdown of relationships resonate. This might sound like a grim affair, but the album is actually a great deal of fun, thanks to the bright musical arrangements within which White packages his songs.
This is certainly a treat: I somehow doubt that we will hear a better album this year.
Review by Matthew Trainor