Before Jack White envisioned the world in red and white, he saw Lime.
Harry Lime, that is, the character played by Orson Welles in the classic 1949 noir The Third Man. A Welles fanatic, White quoted dialogue from Citizen Kane on the White Stripes’ 2001 commercial breakthrough, White Blood Cells. But he has long been fixated specifically on The Third Man, which Welles didn’t direct and appears in for only a handful of scenes as a mysterious and morally unscrupulous black marketer living in postwar Vienna. No matter: Lime is present even when he’s not present in The Third Man. Lime’s old pal, destitute pulp writer Holly Martins (played by frequent Welles cohort Joseph Cotten), is the film’s ostensible protagonist. But Lime is the one who controls the story, which centers on Martins investigating the circumstances of his enigmatic childhood chum’s demise. Eventually, he becomes convinced that Lime isn’t really dead after all. Martins is essentially chasing a truth everybody else believes no longer exists. Something similar could be said about how White has conducted his career for the past 15 years.
Other parallels between White and the film he named his record label (and pre-fame upholstery company!) after might already be apparent. You could, for instance, make a superficial argument about how White tries to cultivate a Lime-like air of intrigue around everything he does. White is often miscast as a modern-day paragon of “authenticity” in music. But in reality, this rockist caricature — whether it’s meant as a misguided compliment or a simplistic critique — doesn’t suit him. From the beginning of his career, White has unapologetically embraced bullshit, whether it is carefully color-coding his onstage attire, fabricating a brother-sister relationship between him and his then-wife Meg White, or designing increasingly ridiculous forms of packaging for his music. Aesthetics are at least as important to White as they are to Lady Gaga. This helps to explain how a guy who makes trend-averse, bluesy Americana records has managed to remain a pop star for more than a decade. If White didn’t care about aesthetics, he might’ve become Joe Bonamassa.1
I own two out of three Black Country Communion albums, so I don’t necessarily mean this as a dis. Just making a distinction between a “star” and a “niche genre star.”
In spite of this, Jack White is not really Harry Lime because, for all his other attributes, he is not innately mysterious. His mysteriousness is constructed. His mysteriousness is intended to attract attention and therefore makes him less mysterious. Depending on your point of view, White either is the most charismatic and singular rock star of his generation or a highly mannered boor preoccupied with his own shtick. Rolling Stone recently called him “a rock & roll Willy Wonka.” A snarkier observer might call him “the blues-rock Wayne Coyne.” I subscribe to the former, but I understand where people in the latter group are coming from, especially lately.
No, in the Third Man analogy, Jack White is really Holly Martins. And the Harry Lime in his life is Meg White, his estranged former partner. Now there’s an innately mysterious person. As White related in a recent Rolling Stone interview timed to the release of his forthcoming second solo record, Lazaretto, Jack hardly ever sees Meg anymore. He called her a “hermit,” suggesting that she never leaves home. But even when they were in the same band, Meg was “one of those people who won’t high-five me when I get the touchdown,” White complained.2 This recalls White’s comments two years ago to The New York Times Magazine, when he deflected charges that he was overly controlling in the White Stripes by claiming that Meg White dominated the band by her indifference to recording and performing. The implication was that Meg was the one who ultimately held sway over Jack’s artistic fate, not the other way around.
Over the weekend, White issued an “apology” in which he walked back his comments about virtually every musician mentioned in the Rolling Stone interview, including Meg White. Basically, he wasn’t really saying “I’m sorry,” but rather “I’m sorry I said this to a reporter.”
At that time, White was promoting his solo debut, 2012’s Blunderbuss, a melancholy breakup record littered with references to powerful, distant females who bore passing resemblance to women who had either left him in his professional life (Meg White, who officially disbanded with Jack White in 2011) or were about to leave him in his personal life (second wife Karen Elson, who divorced White, also in 2011). Both then in the Times Magazine and now in Rolling Stone, White seemed more hung up on Meg than on Karen. To Rolling Stone, he couldn’t help but marvel at what Meg White brought to his old band. “All the not-talking didn’t matter, because onstage? Nothing I do will top that.”
She may no longer be onscreen, but it seems as though Meg White is still controlling Jack White’s narrative. On Lazaretto (out June 10), White continues his pleading to a dominant, unnamed feminine figure who has left him alone, vexed, and alienated. I don’t think this can be chalked up simply as “Jack White’s Women Problem” — it’s more like a woman problem. “It’s not enough that I love you / there’s all these things I have to prove to you,” he sings on the tortured piano stomper “Would You Fight for My Love?” “I love you, but honey, why don’t you love me?” he whines on the rollicking bar-band blues number “Just One Drink.” On the title track, White addresses God as a taciturn woman over one of his signature, start-stop, battering-ram riffs: “She grabs a stick and then she pokes it at me / when I say nothing, I say everything.”3
On the album’s lyric sheet, the line is different and more direct: “She tells me everyday, ‘Jack don’t you see / when I say nothing, I say everything.’”
Now, if White were to read my interpretation of these songs, he would no doubt dismiss it with extreme prejudice. When I interviewed him in 2012, White brushed off the idea that any of the songs on Blunderbuss were autobiographical. “I think it’s very funny that people nowadays still think if you use the word ‘I’ or ‘she’ you are talking about yourself or your girlfriend at the time! I mean, what year is it? Didn’t they get rid of that prison in the ’60s? If I say, ‘I want to kill that man that came to my door’ in a song today, by that logic a detective should be calling my house.”
He may have a point there. Take “Three Women,” the first song on Lazaretto and the album’s most purely enjoyable track. “Three Women” is a straightforward story about a guy with his own harem. There is nothing to suggest that it is a personal account or a manifesto on male-female relationships.4 The macho lyrics (which have been repurposed and revised from an ancient Blind Willie McTell song) are cartoonish and exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness. (“Well, these women must be getting something / because they come and see me every night.”) When “Three Women” is coming through the speakers, it’s clear that what the song is really about is the swinging backbeat, two-fisted organ fills, and magnetic swagger of White’s vocal. Listening to “Three Women” is thrillingly visceral, as White’s music is when it’s at its best. It’s also an outlier on Lazaretto, which is as blue (particularly during the album’s second half) as White’s current color scheme.
In the Rolling Stone interview, White set himself apart from “Three Women” in a weird but persuasive way: “There’s a line in there, ‘It took a digital photograph to pick which one I like.’ If you know anything about me, do you think I like digital photography? No. No I don’t. So obviously this song is not about fucking Jack White, so fuck you!”
I’m sure White would also point out, as he has in interviews promoting Lazaretto, that many of the album’s lyrics were culled from one-act plays and poems that he wrote at age 19. This predates the White Stripes and his relationship with Meg White. In this hypothetical conversation, I would counter by arguing that no matter when the lyrics were written, White’s choice to pick some lines over others amounts to recontextualizing those lyrics in accordance with his current state of mind. But honestly, the specific ingredients that went into Lazaretto aren’t really important. To my ears, whatever the lyrics might or might not literally “mean,” both of Jack White’s solo albums are informed by Meg White’s absence, not just by what’s in the songs but more importantly by what’s not in the songs.
It’s true that strong, silent women who put aggressive, overbearing men in their place have recurred throughout White’s work, from “Truth Doesn’t Make a Noise” on 2000’s De Stijl (“Her stare is louder than your voice”) to the brilliant Blunderbuss cut “Hypocritical Kiss” (“You’re the boy that talks but says nothin’”). But the bewildered and unmistakably male side of Jack White’s music is more noticeable now because the sweet (bordering on twee) walk-with-me—Suzy Lee romanticism that once acted as its counterpoint has vanished.
For the time being at least, White has stopped writing songs like “I Think We’re Gonna Be Friends” or “It’s True That We Love One Another.” Instead, he’s now penning tunes like Lazaretto’s grumpiest number, a weird little country-tinged broadside called “Entitlement.”
“I can’t bring myself to take without penance / or atonement or sweat from my brow,” White sings. “Though the world may be spoiled / and getting worse every day / don’t they feel like they cheated somehow / I feel like I’ve been cheated somehow.”
This is precisely the sort of song that will inevitably annoy and embolden White’s detractors. “Entitlement” is like something Don Henley might’ve written in 1992 about teenagers caring more about Real World than Walden. It’s not a good look for the man who can still exude sex and evil whenever he steps up to play the guitar solo on “Ball and Biscuit.” Even more alarming is that “Entitlement” is probably the one song on Lazaretto that hews closest to White’s professed worldview.
This is not to say that I don’t understand (or on some level relate to) where Jack White is coming from. At heart, he’s a Midwestern boy, as I am. White grew up (as I did) in a place where you have to suffer through seven months of terribly cold weather in order to “earn” five months of terribly humid weather. Penance was imposed on Jack White by Mother Nature herself during his formative years, and when this happens to you, ascribing philosophical significance to it amounts to self-preservation. Take that away and the northern middle of this country would be instantly vacated, leaving nothing but arid farmland and abandoned Dairy Queens. So, I’m not totally unsympathetic to “sweat from my brow” talk. When White explained to NPR that Lazaretto’s title song is about a character who “actually has worked very hard in his life and he’s done some interesting things,” as opposed to “the braggadocio of some hip-hop lyrics,” I winced, but not without a measure of empathy.
I just wonder where Jack White goes from here. He still writes good songs — I really liked Blunderbuss and enjoyed much of Lazaretto — but his recent work leaves a sour aftertaste. It’s gotten to the point where you have to remind the kids that he wasn’t always a crank, that he once made music that was considered irreverent, even silly at times. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that his outlook has worsened as the musicianship on his records has improved. In the Rolling Stone interview, White offers patronizing (but not insincere) praise for Meg White’s “childlike” drumming. I might have used the word “essential.” Jack White wrote the songs, supplied the artistic vision, and did most of the heavy musical lifting in the White Stripes. But Meg White was the point of that band. Meg’s untrained, affectless playing was what made Jack’s songs seem strange and subversive. She pounded postmodern chic into that music with rudimentary steadiness.
When I saw the White Stripes perform in 2002, Jack White was spectacular, soloing wildly from his knees and stalking between several microphones with frightening authority. But I couldn’t take my eyes off of Meg. Meg was the truth. Her playing was what made it acceptable for the White Stripes to cover Son House and claim that it was relevant in a contemporary context as a legitimate punk-rock gesture. Conversely, Meg White’s drumming also unmoored the White Stripes from any tangible sense of modernity. It felt both immediate and a million years old. This is exactly what Jack White was after as a songwriter and record producer, but he had to contrive what Meg did naturally. If Meg didn’t high-five Jack when he scored a touchdown, maybe it was because he was fighting to get to where Meg already was. He’s still battling to get to that place, even as it appears to drift further and further out of reach. “I’d be in the White Stripes for the rest of my life,” Jack White confessed to the Times Magazine in 2012, and no wonder.
Lazaretto ends with a stirring, piano-driven parable called “Want and Able.” It’s about a woman named Want and a man named Able — “one is desire, and the other is the means.” White sings with deep yearning about wanting to “hold you, and see you, and feel you in my dreams / But that’s not possible, something simply will not let me.” He could be singing about Meg White, he could be singing about someone else, he could be singing about nobody. Whoever the guy in the song is, it sounds like he’s been exiled. I hope that this completely fictional character finds what he’s looking for.