Kindred spirits, they started in an urban setting at a young age—Bob Dylan in New York, Jack White in Detroit—playing stripped down, minimalistic roots music with a modern edge. Then with each album, the scope of the music expanded, adding more instruments and creating a bigger sound. At around the same time in their careers, they moved to Nashville, where they played more with other musicians and got more in touch with their country side.
They go by aliases, creating a character which embodies their heroes and tapping into a similar, timeless spirit of yore. They transform, always willing to pour their essence into a new pair of shoes that they happen along in their isolated paths. They self-mythologize, creating a ghost to leave in their wake, one in which legends aplenty could revolve around. They’re guitar-wielding, freewheelin’, ramblin’ men, who live and breathe music in its purest form. They’re of a legacy that consciously drags the history of American music along with it, which is likely deliberate on both of their parts. You crack open their guitar cases, and the ghosts of Blind Willie McTell and Robert Johnson will come flying out. You slide their guitars to the side, and they’ll launch into a piano number that’s part seasoned gospel performer and part self-taught Greenwich Village bohemian.
You can look at the White Stripes albums as Dylan’s New York period—from his debut through Blonde on Blonde—and you can look at White’s post-Stripes period as Dylan’s Nashville / The Band period. It’s been fifteen years since White debuted with the first White Stripes album. With his new album Lazaretto, he’s assembled a band which resembles Dylan’s backing band on Desire—an album made about fifteen years after his debut as well. A country twang, a bluesy base, and a rocker’s attitude, White and Dylan both oscillate between spitting out mouthfuls of lyrical whirlwinds to intimately—if cryptically—expressing their deepest, socially observant feelings about themselves and the simple-yet-complicated world which surrounds them. They seem to lyrically tell you everything about themselves, and nothing all at once, and they see the world with surprising clarity.
They’re eccentrics with a Rashomon reputation—they can be as cruel or as polite as anybody you could meet, depending on who you ask. They’ve divided fans with their independent stubbornness, creating various bandwagons in which to jump onto through their sometimes puzzling endeavors. Being natural leaders, they ended up the reluctant center of a musical movement, where they seem to despise the expectations put upon them, and rebel when they so desire, almost consciously alienating fans to be free of artistic shackles. In a word: they’re unpredictable, and it’s reflected in their music in every way. They indulge themselves in a spontaneity and an intuitive liveliness that’s immediate and fresh, letting their music breathe, and always sounding like they captured something that’ll never happen again. They even have a similar relationship with the press, known for not giving straight answers to questions, deliberately contradicting themselves, and perfectly willing to turn the tables on an interviewer. They have a cheeky sense of sincerity, and a sincere sense of cheekiness, so you don’t always know which one is being expressed, and, like their lyrics, they make you question what’s being said between the lines.
Politically, White hasn’t been as adamant as Dylan was, but occasionally he’ll throw his hat in that ring (see, for instance, “Icky Thump”: “White Americans, what, nothing better to do? Why don’t you kick yourself out, you’re an immigrant too”). Religiously, they’re in sync, espousing an old school Christian sensibility that’s not preachy, but knowing—it’s just part of their world view. This, of course, excludes Dylan’s “Christian” period, which, if White wanted to head down that route at the same point in his career, would be coming up soon (I don’t see that happening, but, again, he’s unpredictable—who saw Dylan heading there when he did?).
Bob Dylan, now the aging bluesman who sounds like later Son House doing early Chuck Berry, is the shadow by which Jack White is allowing himself to be eternally shaded. But since they’re both originals, they’re two trees standing side by side, their roots firmly planted in the American soil. It just so happens that the sun shone on Dylan first.