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Jack White’s 21st Century Blues

Terry Wyatt, Getty Images

It’s never been just about the music. Never. Going back to the time when Frank Sinatra got your grandma all excited, image has been as an integral part of the marketing of music as the music itself. Elvis knew this. So did the Beatles. And the Stones. And Nirvana. And pretty much everyone else who has made music and mattered over the past hundred years.

Jack White sure knows this. Even before he and his ex-wife started a band, began dressing alike and passed themselves off as brother and sister, White knew this. The first band he joined after he decided to take his music outside of his Detroit bedroom was called Goober & the Peas. They dressed like cowboys and punked up country music for garage-rock ironists.

From the red, white and black stage clothes, album-cover designs and concert sets that dominated the White Stripes every public moment to the all-blue motif that’s taken over his subsequent solo career (not to mention the all-male and all-female bands he employed on his last tour, switching them out daily based on whatever mood seemed fit), White’s career has been all about image.

Just as it’s always been throughout the history of pop music and all its forms. Just as it’s been in the past. Just as it was for White’s countless heroes who lived in that past. And just as it always will be.

But it’s been about music too. And on his terrific, just-released second solo album, ‘Lazaretto,’ White twists his 21st-century blues into buzzing, snarling, playful and often dangerous images that uncover the links among the past, present and future.

White’s been weird before, particularly on his first solo album, 2012′s ‘Blunderbuss,’ where he flirted with the tricks and styles of a number of genres, but all ultimately filtered through his modern-day blues scope. But on ‘Lazaretto,’ he’s wilder, flashier, tougher and downright weirder than he’s ever been.

How weird? The first track he released from the album, ‘High Ball Stepper,’ is pretty much nothing more than four minutes of buzzing guitars, riffing somewhere between the mid-’60s and mid-’70s, occasionally scooting aside for stumbling piano fills and a high-pitched howl that’s either shouting out in joy or pain. It’s hard to tell.

But when things rip into a guitar solo — the one fans expect from the 21st century’s greatest guitar hero — it sounds like things are literally ripping. It’s a speaker-shredding wankfest caked in distortion that will have you rushing for the volume button. It’s jagged. It’s totally self-indulgent. And it’s kinda brilliant.

The rest of the album steps up to this kind of platform throughout. It makes some detours so violins and a female duet partner can fill in the gaps, or add to the frenzied mix, from time to time. It also dips into the past, finding inspiration in an old Blind Willie McTell song, ‘Three Women Blues,’ for ‘Lazaretto”s opener, ‘Three Women.’

McTell was the subject of a loving vinyl record put out last year by White’s record company, Third Man. The compilation remains the best of White’s exhaustive reissue series, which documents forgotten blues and folk artists from a period long before people even thought of carrying their music collections in their pockets.

And like the music he released under his own name (and to a lesser extent the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather), the vinyl reissues feel worn in, caressed and cared for by a dedicated caretaker. The songs on ‘Lazaretto’ jump era and style, but mostly it’s a modern variation on blues that White sings throughout.

That’s his thing, and on ‘Lazaretto’ he finds plenty to get blue about. But mostly they’re borrowed blues — somebody else’s blues from long ago and somebody’s idea of what the blues should be. And they’re all powered through that surging current of White electricity that’s a little bit wide-eyed and weird.

It’s not like White doesn’t have 21st-century blues, or crap, to deal with. Recently, he got into some trouble for an interview he did with Rolling Stone, in which he called his former White Stripes bandmate (and ex-wife, let’s not forget that) “a hermit,” and called out the Black Keys for ripping off his style.

He has a point, really, on both fronts. Meg has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She admitted this herself during the Stripes’ heyday, and often hid behind White during interviews. He took control of these situations (as he should have, being the band’s mastermind), partly because it’s in his nature to control. But also because he was protecting Meg from attention she didn’t want.

So is it any surprise that she now lives a quiet, far-away-from-the-spotlight (and yes, hermit-like) life? In the interview, White doesn’t say a single bad word about her. He even goes out of the way to praise her contributions in the band — more than fair, since her primitive drumming, which has its charms, wasn’t exactly the reason why people bought all those White Stripes records.

The worst thing he says about her? She never high-fived him on a job well done. Big f—ing deal.

And while the Keys’ dust-up is a bit more complicated than that, White’s words were more likely influenced by the Black Keys’ claims that they had never heard of the White Stripes. An incredulous claim, sure, but one keeping in line with the Akron duo’s “pure” roots influences.

Keys frontman Dan Auerbach has always said that the bluesmen who inspired his band weren’t the usual legendary signposts — Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, et al — but a whole bunch of obscure guys that practically nobody had even heard of before the Black Keys began singing their praises. (There’s a reason most of these artists had been so long neglected: They’re not nearly as good as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, et al.)

It’s classic indie-rock, hipster-staking “I was there first” bulls—. Most indie-rock bands would never admit they listen to Taylor Swift, just as most indie-rock fans would never admit that ‘You Belong With Me’ is a way better song than anything most them has ever recorded.

So, among other things, White called the Black Keys on it. He also thinks he hears his own songs in theirs. He’s wrong. White’s music is more alive, vibrant, electric and exciting. No comparison. Besides, it’s not Jack White the Black Keys are ripping off; it’s almost a century’s worth of roots music. And White does the same thing. Always has.

Yet, things being the way they are these days, White was forced to issue an apology — a very lengthy one at that — for the Rolling Stone interview, in which he also noted that Amy Winehouse wasn’t the first white soul singer or something to that effect. But the bottom line here is: Jack White has nothing to apologize for.

He’s right almost across the board. His old bandmate ran away from public view. Indie rockers are phonies. And somebody got to the whole white-woman-sings-the-blues thing a long, long time ago. Check it out:

But that’s not going to keep the Internet from hounding White on issues like this. Which is a shame, because his music should be the focus (and because, besides a control issue or two, White seems pretty grounded on most things).

But that’s not how things are these days. It’s about maintaining an image White has worked so hard to cultivate, whether he wants to admit it or not. And that image was never supposed to be one of a control-freak egomaniac. ‘Lazaretto’ is a great album — one of the year’s best. But 2014 will be just as remembered as the year Jack White shot off his mouth and was strong-armed into apologizing for it.

And those are the real 21st century blues.

Next: 10 Best Jack White Songs

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