Subjunctive Thinking and Jack White’s ‘Lazaretto’


Life is a series of choices.  Often times it is not what happens to a person that defines them, rather how they respond to the events that take place; whether the circumstances were self-inflicted or not.  Since life is a series of choices, there are always swaths of “what-ifs.”  What if I had done this instead of that?  Such is called thinking in the subjunctive.  And many logical thinkers will be quick to tell you that thinking in the subjunctive should be banned.  But, screw them.  Thinking about what could’ve been sometimes offers creative release and fun not found elsewhere.

Have you heard of the eccentric, yet-beloved Father Gillis?  My guess is no, you haven’t.  It’s a terrible shame, really; Catholic priests just don’t receive the (positive) attention they deserve.  Credibility statement:  I’m not even Catholic.  Father John Anthony Gillis was born July 9, 1975 in Southwest Detroit to Teresa and Gorman Gillis.  Poised to ascend the ladder of Catholicism, John’s parents worked for the Archdiocese of Detroit; his father was the maintenance superintendent and his mother, the secretary in the Cardinal’s office.  The Gillis’ were devout members of the Most Holy Redeemer Church.  There, small John – youngest of ten children – became an altar boy and developed a taste for classical music.  That taste led to an insatiable thirst.

John began playing drums at the age of six.  His family immediately recognized his musical talent and viewed it as a God-given gift.  Subsequent years led John to play any instrument he could get his hands on, often locking himself in his very small room for hours.  The youngest Gillis took his music seriously; to the extent where he removed his bed from his closet-like room and slept amongst his amps and instruments.  However, another force was pulling John Gillis… God.

Though his musical promise was consistently climbing, John and his family believed his true purpose lied within the Catholic Church.  Consequently, young John applied to and was accepted into a seminary in Wisconsin.  John immediately made an impact on educators and students alike.  Don’t be mistaken: the young Gillis boy was not a saint.  At times some thought him to be the devil’s instrument in the angel’s lair.  However, John made his way through seminary, gaining many friends with his often-gregarious, though sometimes-introverted, personality.

John entered the priesthood and took a position back in Detroit.  He filled a much-needed niche, offering words of hope in a city that needed just that.  There may be no other city that has endured as much heartbreak.  A result of his tireless devotion to his congregation and God, Father Gillis became the Archbishop of Detroit and became the best possible chance for an American pope.

Many people will recognize John Anthony Gillis as the birth name of Detroit-native rocker Jack White.  The aforementioned story is a true one.  Well, except for a few changes I made under artistic license: White didn’t go to seminary, but he was accepted.  Instead, he took an upholstery apprenticeship at 15, eventually started his own upholstery business, joined a band, and finally created his masterpiece, the whirlwind that was the White Stripes.  But look at what fun thinking in the subjunctive gave us!  What if Jack White went to seminary instead of becoming an upholsterer?

the White Stripes

Flash forward nearly a decade.  The White Stripes had taken the rock world by storm, electric guitar was bolstered by White’s interpretation of the instrument, and bluesy garage rock entered the mainstream.  By 2006, Jack started another project, The Raconteurs, with Brendan Benson, a native of Royal Oak, MI.  Next, White formed the Dead Weather, a “super-group” co-led by Alison Mosshart of The Kills.  In between the White Stripes final tour in 2007 and the Dead Weather’s second album, Jack and Meg White officially split.  His latter two projects are still technically open but lately he has focused on his solo career which started with 2012’s Blunderbuss and continues on with the fresh Lazaretto.  The true story of his life is quite different than the fabricated past I constructed earlier.  But my story, like White’s latest album, had a foundation based on truth that then took some liberties.

While White consistently denies that his songs are inherently about him, there is at least a shred of truth to the accusations.  The songs originate with him and therefore carry some part of his being.  It is entirely possible, and most likely true, that White’s songs are mostly separated from himself, but as you’ll hear when you listen to the album, Jack often forms the bedrocks of his tracks on his life and plays around with the story a bit.

Below, find a track-by-track review of Lazaretto, White’s most recent, and possibly most eclectic, album.


Three Women

Blind Willie McTell is one of Jack White’s most prominent influences and “Three Women” clearly shows as much.  The lead-off track on Lazaretto, “Three Women” borrows from McTell’s “Three Women Blues” which includes the following:

Got three womens.  Yellow, brown, and black.

I got three womens, yellow, brown, and black

It’ll take the governor of Georgia

To judge one of these women I like

The opening of White’s “Three Women” goes as follows:

Yeah, I got three women

Red, blonde, and brunette

I got three women

Red, blonde, and brunette

It took a digital photograph to pick which one I like

The song is a fun blues rock number that starts off White’s second solo album the way most would expect.  His strength has often been telling stories and evoking blues and soul, and this track capitalizes on such.  Like on Blunderbuss, there is a definite “Nashvillian” element to the song.


“Lazaretto” is really unlike any other songs released by any of Jack’s projects.  The album’s eponymous track builds upon a bluesy funk guitar riff and drums, incorporating White’s staccato vocals and modified-keyboard melody.  The first line, “my veins are blue and connected” conjures images within White’s new monochromatic aesthetic.  Obviously, with the White Stripes the scheme was black, red, and white.  With White’s solo career, it’s been blue.  Lots of blue.

The song (and this is obvious) is centered on a lazaretto.  A lazaretto is a special quarantined area for people suffering from leprosy.  In this song, White or White’s character, feels ostracized and cursed.  They know where they are but lack the ability to do something about it.  Or so it seems.

The character miraculously shakes “God’s hand” and seemingly escapes this prison.  Jack’s character cannot be knocked out.  As he said, “I’m so Detroit I make it rise from the ashes.”  A play on Detroit’s motto “We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.”

Temporary Ground

This track surprised me.  I thoroughly enjoyed Blunderbuss, and there were plenty of country-infused moments in that album, but for whatever reason I was not ready for this very country song.  Let me clarify: not country in the state it’s currently in.  This is more classical country which is why, after a few listens, the song began to grow on me despite me not being a fan of country music.  As should be expected for a classic country song, the fiddle, piano, and acoustic guitars play large instrumental parts to the track.

Jack’s vocals are backed by an angelic twang-y voice, offering a near perfect complement to the Third Man.  Instead of yelling or projecting his voice, Jack offers a balanced, soothing vocal performance that – if given the chance – is a winner.

Would You Fight For My Love?

It’s unfortunate this track did not come out a couple years ago because this song would have been perfect for Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.  “Fight for My Love” has an eerie aura that surrounds it.  I could see the track being played as Jamie Foxx’s character was montaged on his quest for Broomhilda.

The song begins with a sustained eerie electronically-generated sound and drums.  Next, the piano chimes in, offering a single circuit of chords until the guitar comes in with a basic one note-to-chord transition, evoking the feeling of a spaghetti western.

High Ball Stepper

I don’t have much to offer on this instrumental power house.  Jack White’s guitar prowess is extremely unique.  Some believe he is one of the greatest living guitarists, while others view his playing as a sham, mostly bolstered by elaborate gimmicks.  I happen to be of the former opinion (simply because of his resurrection of the blues rock genre), but I think everyone should find “High Ball Stepper” enjoyable.

Many will remember that White released “Stepper” as his first single on the day he announced Lazaretto.  The song and corresponding music video invigorated fans and created an unparalleled energy.

Just One Drink

Truly a special song, “Just One Drink” splendidly crossbred all of the genres Jack White has come to explore: blues, acoustic country, and good ole rock n roll.  On the album, Ruby Amanfu provides great background vocals, as she often did on Bluderbuss.  Ruby’s vocals, Jack’s production dexterity, and Carla Azar on the drums make this track one of the best on the album.

Below you will find White’s live performance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.  Ruby is not present, but somehow the performance is still very electric.  As Fallon said at one point during the shot, “Thank God for Jack White.”

Alone in My Home

“Alone in My Home” is a song about, as one might expect, a recluse.  This character is running from something and has decided to lock themselves away so no one can know them.  Packaged in a folk-blues-country hybrid Jack sings:

I’m becoming a ghost

Becoming a ghost

So nobody can know me.

Many people would be quick to think Jack is singing about Meg White.  Recently Jack called Meg a hermit, but anyone who followed the White Stripes knows that Meg was always an extremely introverted individual.  The fact that she took the stage with thousands of people in attendance was monumental.  However, there is a more poetic connection.

The ghosts referred to in the song are said to be held in chains.  This may recall Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” where there were also some ghosts in chains.  In “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge is also a recluse, hardly ever finding time for positive interpersonal interaction to the point where no one can really know him.  The silver lining is that Scrooge changes his ways and one can have similar hope for White’s character.

Though this track is not the most musically interesting, the story is worthy of contemplation.


Like with most of Lazaretto, “Entitlement” is a song that references Jack’s strong religious beliefs.  The title of the track should give an accurate description of what the song is about.  Jack’s character (actually Jack in this case?) is annoyed with millennials who belief that they are owed certain things because they draw breath from the earth.  A sentiment also expressed in “Lazaretto,” White’s character sees the value in hard work and wonders how this younger generation doesn’t feel cheated.

While I don’t necessarily disagree with all of White’s sentiments, “Entitlement” is not the best.  The music is fairly dull and the delivery of the lyrics doesn’t offer any lasting memory.

That Black Bat Licorice

This is the most Blunderbuss-esque track on Lazaretto.  The style that characterized the first dominating tracks on his 2012 record, like “Sixteen Saltines” and “Freedom at 21,” is fully present in this wacky, hip-hop-infused number.  The song includes a fantastic mix of electric guitar, drums, fiddle, mandolin, and a Hammond organ that opens that track.

I don’t have much to offer on the track, except that it’s extremely fun to listen to and might be one of my favorites.

I Think I Found the Culprit

Another track destined for Django Unchained.  “Culprit” is another spaghetti western-like song that is pretty low-key in its delivery but boasts a very listenable eerie refrain:

I think I found the culprit

It looks like you, it must be you

Ain’t found nothing better yet

What’s a matter with you?

You got nothing to do?

Want and Able

This is White’s swan song for Lazaretto.  The track only features Jack White; no other musicians.  Jack tells the story of Want and Able.  It’s an interesting song, influenced by one of White’s biggest heroes, Bob Dylan.

Want and Able

Are two different things

One is desire, and the other is the means

And touch you in my dreams,

But that’s not possible,

Something simply will not let me

“Want and Able” seems a fitting end to Lazaretto, a seemingly deeply personal, yet completely detached album that explores the deep recesses of White’s mind, if not life.

Overall, Lazaretto was a solid installment in Jack White’s solo career.  The record was not as profound as Blunderbuss, but White continues to make inspired music that can inspire others.

The Peacocks

Brent Glass is a Michigander who graduated from Eureka College in May of 2013. He spent time at the Sagamore Institute in Indianapolis, IN (a non-partisan think tank) where he worked on political economy pieces for Detroit, MI and Elkhart, IN. Additionally, he spent the summer of 2012 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA, working on social media management. Currently he is working full-time as a Management Assistant.  He plans to further his education in the fall of 2014 at Wayne State University in pursuit of a Ph.D. in Urban Development.


Categories: Music

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3 replies

  1. Nice write up….you touched on the introspection which is one of the elements that draws a devotee into the “World” of Jack…

  2. Excellent article very thought provoking.Going to listen to the album while this is still fresh in my mind.

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