Jack White used to need the blues more than the blues needed him.
As frontman of the White Stripes, the singer-guitarist transformed desperation into energy. He wanted so badly to join an American roots-music tradition established decades before he was born that his act seemed livelier than those of the many other rock resuscitators who came up alongside him in the early '00s.
Peers projected respect, admiration, fealty to a record collector’s ideal while White put across an outsider’s desire you could practically taste. But that was before he caught up with that desire -- before this rock star outgrew his obsessions.
Now the power is in his hands, which is why Tuesday night at the Fonda Theatre -- where White, 38, played the first of three local gigs tied to the release of his strong new solo album, “Lazaretto” -- the old blues-style stuff felt like community service: time-honored gestures re-enacted for the edification of a young audience unlikely to fill a similarly sized room for B.B. King or Buddy Guy.
Were the lessons in songs like “Ball and Biscuit” and “Little Bird” valuable? I suppose. To the extent that ribald metaphors and good guitar playing can tell us new things in 2014 (or can at least tell us familiar things in a gripping way), White had plenty to offer.
More important, though, these songs -- clearly modeled on foundational work by any number of predecessors -- no longer seemed to be saying anything to White. His renditions Tuesday felt dried-up, drained of the surprise he once found in the music every night.
The excitement, and there was lots of it, was in White’s new songs, both from “Lazaretto” and his 2012 solo debut, “Blunderbuss,” as well as reconfigured versions of some of the White Stripes’ more adventurous hits. White provided a thrill too, in a bit of left-field showmanship as several roadies dressed in suits rushed onstage at one point to right a microphone stand that had fallen over.
Easily the best rock album so far this year, “Lazaretto” is nobody’s idea of a purist’s statement. In the title track alone, White mixes fuzzy heavy-metal guitar and a disco-funk bass line with scratchy synthesizer bleeps and a close-harmony fiddle solo. Other songs pull from reggae, hip-hop and the polished country arrangements of his adopted hometown, Nashville.
In his lyrics too, White moves away on “Lazaretto” from the seductions and the troublemaking in which he used to specialize. Using language that can be disarmingly specific, White sings about isolation in an age of constant connection.
Even “Three Women,” based on a piece of vintage blues by Blind Willie McTell, disrupts a lothario’s boast with what sounds like an uneasy reference to online dating. “I got three women / Red, blonde and brunette,” he sings over a menacing organ lick. “It took a digital photograph to pick which one I like.”
Backed at the Fonda by a sharp five-piece band, White -- scheduled to play the Mayan on Wednesday and the Fox Theater in Pomona on Thursday -- tore into the album’s juxtapositions with the ferocity he used to bring to his more elemental material. “Lazaretto” was monstrous, that bass line an inversion of the theme from “Jaws,” while “High Ball Stepper” shrieked with White’s guitar and Lillie Mae Rische’s fiddle.
In “Missing Pieces,” from “Blunderbuss,” Fats Kaplin accented the song’s herky-jerk groove with eerie long tones he pulled from a theremin. And as though he were living up to the title of “Love Interruption,” Daru Jones waited until White and Rische were blending their voices around a single microphone to crash in with a rat-a-tat drum beat.
It wasn’t all so unhinged. Streaked with pedal steel, the new album’s “Temporary Ground” had the luster of ’60s-era Nashville, as did a handsomely filled-out rendition of the White Stripes’ ragged “Hotel Yorba.” For “Fell in Love with a Girl,” another White Stripes song, White took the opposite approach, deconstructing its punk guitar thrash. He kept the sound similarly uncluttered in “We’re Going to Be Friends” and “You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket.”
But even when he smoothed out his attack, as in the very pretty “Alone in My Home,” White was channeling an alertness and an intensity in his new music that felt so much more immediate -- so much more lifelike -- than the now-tired blues moves of his past.
“All alone in my home nobody can touch me,” he sang with something like pride. Think about that for a second: Jack White finally made it in from outside only to discover that it’s just as lonely there.
Twitter: @mikaelwoodCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times