Jack White’s Lazaretto: good album, bad theology

Robert Keeley

Robert Keeley
July 18, 2014

Jack White wants music to be a struggle on Lazaretto, but for the wrong reasons.

John Joseph Thompson
July 18, 2014

Really? I must respectfully disagree. Everything this side of the veil is a struggle. It only makes sense that true art, be it music or film or a painting, would reference that struggle or risk being completely irrelevant to the world. In eternity I imagine the songs we sing around the throne will not need tension or struggle that will all be behind us, but until then we’re up to our eyeballs in it. Even Jesus – when he was encouraging his disciples to stay strong – detailed the pain they would experience in graphic detail. He told stories about vengeful vineyard owners and debauched prodigals and good friends lying in stinking graves. He railed against vipers and rebuked those who offered sweet sounding answers. I’m reading through the Gospels right now. There’s some major struggle in there.

In my opinion the best music has always been about struggle at some level or another. Whether in the content of the lyric (“Amazing Grace” comes to mind with struggle words like “wretch” and “blind” and “lost,” or in the music itself. It’s all about tension and release, isn’t it? Certainly the blues are. Blues music without struggle would be the most boring music in the world!

I also think you may be missing the point of White’s work in general. He creates characters and then places those characters into scenes. Then he scores those scenes with music. The song “Lazaretto” isn’t about him specifically – though the values and ideas his characters act out must be anchored in his own psyche. That song is from the perspective of a character bragging about how terrible he is. It even makes sense to me that the protagonist would envision God as a woman so as it make it easier for him to feel superior to her. Even the title – Lazaretto – hints at the spiritual angst at work here. Whether he means it as a hotel for lepers, a quarantine or storage room on a ship (the “Glory Hole”?) – a version of hell (or more likely, all of the above) – these songs all swirl around impressionistic images of a cast of characters searching for the silver lining in this dark world or just trying to make it darker. Some place their trust in themselves and act as if they are God. Things don’t seem to work out too well for those folks.

Obviously White’s record is not 100% bona fide theological perfection. That’s not what he seems to be after. But when was the last time you heard a mainstream rock artist so frequently reference God, sin, atonement and struggle in his work? I’ve spun this disc about a dozen times and I’m finding new gems to contemplate each time. He even name checks those God-awful Jack Chick comics from yesteryear on “Black Bat Licorice” – “She writes letters like a Jack Chick comic. Just a bunch of propaganda to make my fingers histrionic.” That line suggests to me that Jack has some significant history with the Christian subculture. Who else knows about Jack Chick? The guy made comics that weren’t funny – or scary… they were just “Christian” propaganda. Too many Christians have done the same with music.

I find Lazaretto to be another fascinatingly satisfying collection of cryptic classic rock songs that are overwhelmingly haunted by Gospel images and an underlying sense of spiritual struggle that I identify with. His frustration at God doesn’t bother me. I’ve felt that many times – even this week! I doubt God is all that worried about it either. He’s been here and walked around. He experienced the Struggle in a way we can only imagine. He knows what we’re going through and then some.

Bob Keeley
July 18, 2014

Thanks, John, for your comment. We don’t disagree as much as you might think. I agree that the blues is about struggle and that lots of great music has been made referencing life’s struggles. It only takes a second to think of lots of examples from Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band to the Who’s Quadrophenia or more recent examples like Coldplay’s Ghost Stories or Katie Herzig’s Walk Through Walls. I don’t think I was suggesting that an artist should not write about struggles. I was suggesting that struggles are not the way the world is supposed to be. That’s an important difference – one that I thought I made clear. Perhaps I didn’t.

Like you I also find new things in Lazaretto each time I play it and I know I didn’t give enough attention to many of the interesting things in the album in my essay. You certainly know the limits of what one can say in 600 words from your writing for TC. In fact, your response goes over the typical 600 words limit! I didn’t get a chance to write about “Just One Drink” or “Three Women” except to note the old blues song reference. There is a lot in this album and I like it a lot. It might be the album of the year for me so far.

I also think you would agree that lots of music that references God, even often, doesn’t always get theology right and sometimes it is just downright wrong. The 2006 Who album, Endless Wire, has a lot to say about God and religion but it certainly does not seem to come from a faith perspective. When I listen to that album I hear someone who has a lot of religious baggage. And some of the critique seems to be quite immature. I don’t hear the vitriol in Lazaretto that I do in Endless Wire and I also give White more credit than I do Townshend in this case, but I also don’t hear that White sees God as being on the same team as he is. You mention that you are sometimes frustrated with God and I get that – I am too. I think that the book of Job is full of that and I am convinced that God wants to hear our struggles. I even write about that explicitly in my recent book, Psalms for Families. .

My take on what I thought White was doing on this album came from watching It Might Get Loud and also reading a recent interview with White (in Rolling Stone, maybe????) in which he specifically says that he put “I work hard” in Spanish to not make it seem like he is bragging. Based on what he said in those interviews, he might be singing from a character’s perspective, as you note, but I think he sees part of himself there too.

So, I think our view of the album is quite similar – I just think that White seems to be blaming God for some of the struggles that he himself sets up. I probably do that too.

John Joseph Thompson
July 19, 2014

Fair enough. I loved "It Might Get Loud" - but to me it felt like Jack was putting everyone on throughout the film. Page was all about quoting blues artists and passing it off as his own work, and Edge is about layers of effects on top of sounds. White is both of those to an extreme - but the effects are laid over his personal and he makes no bones about being a disciple of Son House. Jack seems to be stepping in the shoes of Bob Dylan in more ways than one.

The more I listen through this album, though, the more I hear White's Catholicism coming through - albeit through a blue-tinted and darkened glass. And yeah - there's some God blaming here (though I can't tell if it's from his true perspective or from that of one of his characters,) but I think on a few songs - especially "Entitlement" - he seems to point fingers squarely at himself.

And obviously life is not supposed to be a struggle, but as long as we're still on this side of the divide it is all about struggle, so I think Jack is right when he says music should be too. I don't think that's bad theology per se.

July 20, 2014

Two replies come to mind:

First, White has curiously mimicked someone like Kierkegaard by publicly saying the voices/characters who sing his songs cannot be conflated with the writer of those songs, namely White himself. This obviously matters for the routine examples of blatant sexism, which he blames on the characters rather than himself. Some might say this cheating, and sometimes it probably is, but it's at least a "benefit of the doubt" situation.

That said, it doesn't detract from the point you're making regarding struggle. But here, too, I find a certain disagreement. God does at times in the biblical narrative "poke" and "prod" characters here and there, and in their struggle sometimes they do indeed appear to create or learn (or, in the worst cases, expire)--one thinks for example of Jacob's wrestling, which ends with a pretty significant prod.

I see what you're after; you don't want God to be the cause of suffering or misery, and that's important. But I'm not sure White is guilty of that charge. Instead, he seems to be articulating a common theme among religious artists, one that I think is worth listening to more positively.

Jordan Ballor
July 21, 2014

The song that captures the dynamic between limitation and innovation in White's corpus par excellence is the ditty "Little Room" from White Blood Cells:


When everything is possible, nothing is. The kind of creative tension that White testifies to in "It Might Get Loud," "Little Room," and now in his latest album is the need for human beings to have limits within which human creativity and innovation can occur (e.g. "ordered liberty"). Theologically it would be easy to argue this is not merely a post-lapsarian reality, although the tension has become more pointed and taken on a different cast after the Fall.

I think John Joseph Thompson is right to point to White's Catholicism coming through strongly in this regard, both in "It Might Get Loud" and now in Lazaretto.

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