In 1967, blues guitar genius Michael Bloomfield quit his day job with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band to create a new group. The Electric Flag was devoted, in Bloomfield’s words, to playing “American music”. Rock, blues, soul, country, and R&B all figured into the mix. They released one album before Bloomfield, always a guy with a short attention span, left. The album, A Long Time Comin’, is a flawed gem. There’s some superb blues (“Texas”), some great soul (“Over Loving You”), and a wicked rave on the old R&B song “Wine (Spo-Dee-O-Dee)”. In attempting to be all-encompassing “American music” the album falls short. It was too big a concept, one that required over-thinking on the part of the band’s leaders. Years later, Gram Parsons dubbed his music “Cosmic American Music” but no matter how you sliced it, Parsons was a country boy. His two solo albums are staggeringly brilliant, but they’re almost pure country. Perhaps the most successful attempt at “American Music” was the Stephen Stills project, Manassas. Over four sides of a self-titled album, Manassas toured the music scene, touching on everything from rock to Latin music. It’s a lost classic LP (the band was so good Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman said it was the only group he’d quit the Stones to join), but it also has that quality that marred the Electric Flag album: the concept isn’t organic. Sides are neatly divided into themes. A second album was a flop.
The problem with these attempts at “American Music” is that they fail to recognize that American music is as much a melting pot as the country.
Which brings me to Jack White.
White has, as far as I know, never referred to his music as “American”, cosmic or otherwise. He simply plays what he wants to play. The White Stripes were blues run through a Led Zeppelin filter and played with punk rock intensity. The Raconteurs are straight up classicist rock music and power pop. The Dead Weather explores White’s interest in dark, Gothic, industrial music. His first solo album, 2012’s Blunderbuss, was a masterpiece of songwriting and performance. His latest album, Lazaretto, falls short of that mark, but in some ways clarifies White’s vision. Lazaretto is American music.
Unlike the earlier albums discussed, White doesn’t separate the different genres. He puts them all into the melting pot and what comes out is uniquely his. The best example on the album is the title track. There are hints of progressive rock in the keyboards and synthesizers, the guitar is screamingly loud in the finest rock tradition, there are bluegrass violins playing over the end of the song, the groove is funk, and the vocal delivery is rap. Yes, he’s even a good rapper. Of course, since this is Jack White the lyrics are about being quarantined in a leper colony, making models of people using coffee and cotton, and having discussions with God, rather than the bling he’s wearing. I’ve never cared for rap; I find it too repetitive, not melodic, and far too much of it is disturbingly racist and sexist. But if more rap songs had lyrics about leper colonies, and were set to an instrumental backing of scorching lead guitar and Appalachian fiddle, I’d be on board.
What White has done with this song (and with the other song that uses a rap delivery, “That Black Bat Licorice”, is combine the dominant strains of popular music from the past sixty years: blues, rock, country, and rap. He’s also added in his trademark eccentricities in the lyrics. “Licorice” makes references to Roman hypocausts, Nietzsche, Freud, and either the Egyptian god Horus or the Roman poet Horace (I’m guessing the latter). It also has the lines “I mean, she’s my baby/But she makes me get avuncular/And when my monkey is jumping/I got no time for making up for her” which, aside from being funny, is a sophisticated rhyme scheme.
White’s humor is clear throughout. The man may be the PT Barnum of rock and roll, a prankster and promoter of supreme ability. Consider the vinyl version of the album, which is the highest selling vinyl record in over 20 years. White has brought his showmanship to the grooves of his record by forcing people to interact and actually think about putting on music. Side one of the album is a standard shiny LP, but side two is flat matte to reproduce the look of old 78 RPM records. Side one of the album plays backwards…that’s right, you drop the needle at the end of side one for it to play. The run out groove on side one is etched with holographic angels that can only be seen from a certain angle. There are two extra songs on the vinyl LP…hidden under the label. One of these songs is played at 45 RPM. The other at 78 RPM, making Lazaretto a three-speed record. The first song on side two (“Just One Drink”) has an acoustic intro or an electric intro, depending on which groove you drop the needle into. Lastly, there are continuous loops of sound at the end of each side, similar to the run out groove on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And if you got the LP from White’s exclusive website (The Vault), the album was blue and white vinyl instead of black, and the cover was black and white instead of blue. It’s all promotional, but it also forces the listener to experience the tactile sensation of playing music, a sensation that any music geek will tell you increases the connection with the music in a way that you don’t get with a sound file. It certainly lacks the convenience of an MP3, but it’s actually fun to see and experience the process. And Jack White is clearly having a lot of fun…probably more than anyone in the music business except Dave Grohl. White is rock’s greatest eccentric and musical wildcard since Bob Dylan and Neil Young.
The album also jams country, Delta blues, piano ballads, Zeppelin riffs, and just about anything else you can think of into its eleven tracks, frequently combining some or all the elements into a single song. The opener, “Three Women” is an updating of Blind Willie McTell’s “Three Women Blues”, though it lifts the “Lordy Lord” chorus from McTell’s “Broke Down Engine Blues”. It’s one of the most straightforward songs on the album, in stark contrast to the delightfully schizophrenic “Would You Fight For My Love?” “Temporary Ground” features White duetting with Lillie Mae Rische on a song that blends country and rock; “Entitlement” takes a vicious, and well-deserved, stab at the Entitled Generation; “High Ball Stepper” is an instrumental that sounds like Emerson, Lake and Palmer jamming with Led Zeppelin; “Want And Able” would fit perfectly at the end of any White Stripes album; and “Just One Drink” is country as played by the Rolling Stones, sounding like a lost track from Exile on Main Street. And if the connection to “American music” isn’t clear enough, White even throws in a lyrical reference to “Wine (Spo-Dee-O-Dee)”, the song the Electric Flag covered as their R&B track.
Jack White has come very close to perfecting “American music”…a stew of blues, rock, country, folk, bluegrass and, now, hip-hop. He hasn’t done it by trying his hand at different styles, the way Bloomfield, Stills, or Parsons did. Instead, White has completely assimilated the music he loves and spits it back out through the prism of his own prodigious talent. Lazaretto is not as good as Blunderbuss; it tries too hard in spots where the previous album seemed effortless, and Lazaretto takes several listens to appreciate where Blunderbuss was instantly likable. Nevertheless, it’s another stunning collection from a great musical talent that is peaking in his creativity.