Consider the wonder and magic of conjuring a song from the ether. Creating from a mix of oxygen, blood, water and energy a few minutes of something real, something melodically memorable, something as durable as the architecture surrounding us and the technology enveloping us.
“Temporary Ground,” off Jack White’s new solo album, “Lazaretto,” is an insta-classic ode to the fleeting beauty of life, delivered through fiddle, acoustic guitar, piano, pedal steel, voice and heart. It opens with a couplet that with precision and poeticism describes the earth and the “drifting continental shelf” upon which we toil.
“On a floating lily island/Moving over slowly sideways/Rest the temporary creatures/Spending all their days.” A meditation on impermanence, not long ago the song was an unseen bud hidden within a springtime branch. Now it’s hard to imagine the world without it.
The same could be said of “Lazaretto,” White’s second album under his own name after years spent exploring and expanding the roots of American music as co-founder of the White Stripes and with the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather. A confident, brash, inventive collection featuring songs that lock into the psyche after only a few listens, the White-produced creation is lyrically and musically challenging and filled with many fresh avenues of exploration, even as it nods to key tones and ideas from throughout the history of pre-rap American music.
“Lazaretto” is also the closest thing to a pure Nashville record that White’s ever done, accomplished in large part by harnessing the talent of a few female foils in the artist’s creative life: fiddle player and vocalist Lillie Mae Rische, whose instrument adds delicate melodic texture throughout, and background singer Ruby Amanfu, a member of the all-female band the Peacocks that often backs White on tour and on half of “Lazaretto.”
On “Alone in My Home,” a piano-driven ode to the allure of the hermetic life, Rische echoes White every second line, creating this beautiful counterpoint momentum pushed along by rhythm and a hard melody. “All alone in my home nobody can touch me,” he sings, thematically echoing Alex Chilton’s great “Big Black Car” on the numbing joys of isolation. “Would You Fight for My Love” features Amanfu offering wordless tones that capture the longing of the lyric.
Each measure on “Lazaretto,” in fact, could be footnoted: here an ascendant melody that kinda-sorta sounds like the Rolling Stones’ “She’s So Cold,” there a belting-out of “Lawdy lawd!” stolen from Blind Willie McTell’s “Broke Down Engine Blues.” The album’s opening measures feel more like a “Maggot Brain"-era Funkadelic jam than a Jimmy Page-inspired rock riff. On “Just One Drink,” White alludes to unsung hero of proto-rock ‘n’ roll Stick McGee with the line “you bust your lip on wine spodie-odie.” Echoes of Ry Cooder’s wicked guitar playing for Captain Beefheart permeate “Lazaretto,” while enough ivy of the Nashville sound twines around verses and choruses to confirm that the ideas of his adopted home continue to exert their influence.
Clocking in at a spare 38 minutes, “Lazaretto” is at various times explosive, pensive and defiant. White sings of three different women to open “red, blonde and brunet,” celebrating and pondering single life minus any weak-kneed apologies. “I’m lonely at night, but I stay up until the break of day,” he sings, bragging like Howlin’ Wolf before turning inward: “How come I gotta have these women to chase my blues away?” Later in the song he responds to would-be critics: “Well these women must be getting something/Because they come see me every night.” (The Wolf’s DNA can also be found in “Just One Drink” with an allusion to his “I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)”: “You drink water/I drink gasoline/One of us is happy/One of us is mean.”)
Such geeky academia, though, diminishes the central success of “Lazaretto,” which is that it’s a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. The instrumental “High Ball Stepper” is a raucous work tailor-made for live performance featuring a wild White siren-scream and a stop-start rhythm suggesting the spirit of the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out” or a fuel-injected version of a Duane Eddy jam. “That Black Bat Licorice” daringly rhymes the phrase “black castrum doloris” with “Nietzsche, Freud and Horus” to open, and then dives into a weird internal world featuring references to the Christian comic tracts of Jack Chick, a “wit of the staircase with atomic clock precision” and a closing couplet that rhymes TV detective Columbo with Walt Disney’s flying elephant Dumbo.
“Want and Able” closes the record. The second part of a three-song narrative that began with the White Stripes song “Effect and Cause” from “Icky Thump,” it features the artist on guitar and piano and is the sparsest of the 11 songs. Opening with the caw of crows and the hiss of a weathered LP, the song’s a parable that pits desire against action: “Like I want to see you, lie next to you/And touch you in my dreams/But that’s not possible/Something simply will not let me.”
It’s not the best lyric on “Lazaretto,” but that’s all relative. Out of all that mess combined, all those wildly divergent but logically connected sounds live so many sticky moments even the lesser ones will endure as part of this confident whole.