In the excellent documentary It Might Get Loud, Jack White talks about how he intentionally struggles with music. He often chooses crummy old instruments so that he has to work hard to make music with them. If he has time to go three steps to get from the piano to the organ during a song, he’ll put the organ four steps away just to add a sense of urgency to his performance. He talks about how God said that Adam and Eve would have to work hard to make things grow. “It is supposed to be a struggle,” he says.
You can hear that struggle on White’s new album, Lazaretto. This album rocks hard, featuring songs built on heavy guitar or organ riffs, much like classic Led Zeppelin. The riff in “High Ball Stepper,” for example, is every bit as infectious as “Whole Lotta Love” and almost as menacing as “Kashmir.”
But the songs aren’t all heavy. White’s band also includes violin and steel guitar, so that “Alone in My Home” and “Temporary Ground” have significant folk and country influences (again, like early Led Zeppelin). One thing that all the songs have in common, though, is the sense that White is still struggling with his music. Perhaps it is his quirky voice or equally quirky guitar playing, but I’m reminded of a train that is taking turns at high speed, barely staying on track. This is a band that might fall apart at any moment. All the players are playing with so much energy that it seems likely that someone will fall out of time or out of tune. But they don’t. White is working hard on this music. He even sings about that in the title song, although he sings it in Spanish: “Yo trabajo duro / Como en madera y yeso.” (I work hard, like in wood and plaster.)
The idea that music is supposed to be a struggle doesn’t quite work for me.
He has also studied hard. Many of these tracks refer to old blues songs: Blind Willie McTell’s “Three Women Blues” (“Three Women”) and Howlin’ Wolf’s “I Asked for Water, She Gave Me Gasoline” (“Just One Drink”) to name two. White has clearly done his homework, as Lazaretto is awash in homages to his blues heroes.
The idea that music is supposed to be a struggle, though, doesn’t quite work for me. Struggle is actually not the way it is supposed to be. It is the way it is - but that is not how we were created. Jack White got his theology wrong. He sees himself as working against “God herself,” as he says on the title song: “She grabs a stick and she pokes at me.”
Struggling is not bad in itself. Most people enjoy a challenge. Playing sports against a good opponent, rock climbing and crossword puzzles are all difficult - and it is in this difficulty that we often find joy. So for White to embrace the challenge makes good sense; he just doesn’t realize that the presence of a challenge doesn’t mean that God is poking him with a stick. White’s struggle works as art because of his talent and because of his years of practice - both signs of God’s grace. White sees the struggle but he misses that crucial fact.