Jack White’s body of work this century is near unparalleled in the genre. Churning out critically acclaimed project after critically acclaimed project, stemming across his four primary means of releasing music, the man has kept busy. Not only this, but he has managed to make it worth everybody’s time with the garage-rock stylings of The White Stripes, the Alison Mosshart-lead supergroup The Dead Weather, his deeply eclectic solo career, and once upon a time, a band called The Raconteurs.
Co-fronted by White and indie-pop singer-songwriter Brendan Benson, the group at the time of their first two records was something different. Their debut release Broken Boy Soldiers arrived in the gap between the penultimate and final White Stripes records, the two that I think it’s fair to say are the most divisive to the fan base. But BBS sounds nothing like either. The pop handiwork of Benson ensured the album stood on its own; this was a whole new entity, not meant to ride the coattails of White’s other success. In retrospect, the home run that album hit absolutely paved the way for the two other musical identities he’d assume. For example, Raconteurs bassist Jack Lawrence would pop up again in the soon-to-be-born Dead Weather.
So, Boy Soldiers was a triumph – ‘Steady As She Goes’ is still a triumph, turn the radio on – and the 2008 follow-up Consolers of the Lonely hit the mark too… but it has been 11 long years since. What does a Raconteurs album sound like this decade? One, might I add, that they nearly missed?
I must start by saying that I really enjoy how well the set of tracks that make up Help Us Stranger flow together. There’s something to be said of the listening experience of albums that actually play like albums, songs that are bound together thematically and positioned in accordance of best getting a message across and inducing something authentic out of the listener. What that message and those feelings appear to be getting at is a much different paragraph.
Building into punched out chords and crashing cymbals taking their shape, opener ‘Bored and Razed’ first plays with soft licks that would’ve fit in a dream on White’s 2012 solo debut Blunderbuss. When you eventually arrive at the verse however, this is is all a distant memory. Jack squeals about “staying away from the left and the right” in his usual panicked timbre. The chorus explores lost love, but only thinly enough to set up insulting the object of their affections (“plastic features, perfect face/what a waste”). No idea what’s going on here.
‘Help Me Stranger’ is a much more vibrant and focused track, erupting with a barrage of warm and mellow instrumentation after a few lines of deliberately drab introduction. Here, the two singers beg of perfect strangers to occupy their time as they attempt to begin to heal their hearts. “It’s not essential that I feel you, but it’s a sensitive device.”
The clear and bright power pop/piano ballad hybrid ‘Shine the Light On Me’ is a refreshing change of pace and certainly a standout. There are echoes of Meat Loaf, and a whole load of the blues etched in the vocal. “We don’t need to know why the flowers grow, let’s just be happy they can.”
Following a pretty misjudged cover of Donovan’s ‘Hey Gyp,’ the single ‘Sunday Driver’ is prepared to fire on all cylinders. With a car-advert-ready riff and completely inane lyrics to boot, it doesn’t. “It ain’t right, it ain’t wrong/It’s a fact, sing my song” might be the most uninspired chorus I have heard this year, dear God.
The final two tracks ‘What’s Yours Is Mine’ and ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ are different on almost every front. The former is actually a pretty fun piece with a lot of interesting part ideas sonically, while the latter winds the album down nicely by taking an earnest and simple route home, deploying some gorgeous strings. The issue with both, however, and maybe the single thing they do share, is that neither says as much as they think they do. This becomes an issue when relying on the methods used to spout such vagueness. ‘What’s Yours Is Mine’ is insistent and posturing, and the musical mood board of the closer is hell-bent on invoking a feeling that may well never arrive.
Pair this with the fact that some lyrics on the album feel very ‘old man yells at cloud’ on modern themes such as technology – the line “all your clicking and swiping” on the track ‘Don’t Bother Me’ is particularly cringeworthy – which is even stranger to say considering Jack White’s recent foray into digital recording techniques for the first time in his career with great results. To compare this album to White’s 2018 solo full-length Boarding House Reach would be a total disservice to what both albums were aiming for, but it’s so hard not to when the results are the antithesis of each other. With BHR, he sought to diversify his palette and explore modern production values as a means of reinvention. With this one however, White and friends are content to sit in their usual territory. Some fans are going to love that, but I just couldn’t.
Although I ordinarily reject the term, I think this release is what the internet calls ‘Dad Rock.’ It’s okay. It’s reliable, amiable, entirely safe guitar music devoid of edge or sustainable playful spirit. It knows its corner well, it has made peace with it, and it doesn’t care what you think. Luckily for me, then, I can afford to say I think it’s wildly average, mostly forgettable and much more often ‘close to being good’ than it is ever really good.
Help Us Stranger is available now via Third Man Records.