At this point, it’s hard to believe Jack White’s mid-to-late career story has seen anything closely resembling a break. With his dyad of noteworthy Blues Rock outfits, which between The Dead Weather and The Raconteurs have released one new record apiece this decade following prolonged hiatuses and a healthily maintained, if not unpredictable solo career in full force, White has never signaled a slowdown.
For all its misses, the man’s post-Stripes trajectory has been anything if uneventful, even if by now White is more notable as a crazed candyman of vinyl pressing than he is a consistently pro-retro, reinvigorating rock star. And yet, even despite last year’s perplexingly outgoing Boarding House Reach under his own name, it’s hard to see White hop onto any LP, regardless of the band he works alongside, and not just hear another set of Jack White tunes. That’s why hearing that this newest release from his firstmost side project bridges a nearly eleven-year gap won’t strike much of a chord with listeners outside of Third Man Records and Jack White devotees.
The Bluesy four-piece released their sophomore (and until recently, their final) effort Consolers of the Lonely in 2008, three years before The White Stripes’ public adieu. That insanely wide studio gap isn’t felt in the hype, nor in the overall contents of their new record Help Us Stranger, a project which respectably tries for its titular crying call in the face of a disestablished America, but ultimately lands as little more than a stack of twelve iffy tracks, each only unique in their individual capacity for being vaguely out of touch.
Album opener “Bored and Razed” lives up to the name; it’s a pummeling, angry Blues-Garage rock hybrid that’s at once voltaic and too drowsy for its own good. Aside from White’s maniacal vocal, the track sounds like a hypothetical: “What would it be like if this 70s rock tune were released today?”. In an older context, the song is a thunderstorm. To a contemporary ear, it loses a great deal of bite, too edged out by a specific nostalgia to be totally overpowering. The next song, “Help Me Stranger”, is a great deal better; a catchier tune that’s comfortable enough with rock modernisms, using its rhythmic drive to mimic a sample-based style.
Lead single “Now That You’re Gone” begs to have a bit more meat on its bones, but the grinding, buzzy guitar melody is at least sticky. As a stab at minimalism facing down solace, it’s a successful and often emotional track. A song like “Sunday Driver”, landing on the aforementioned single’s opposite side and coming just before “Now That You’re Gone” on the final tracklist, could learn a lot from it. It’s a huge, monstrous rock banger, but it’s a song that seems as directionless in the studio as it is tuneless to the ear; a loud mess that mistakes volume for actual compelling intensity. Its attempt for 60’s harmonies are grating against Jack’s fuzzy guitar, and the chorus is lame enough for a thousand car commercial jokes.
Much of the LP is a thematic push-pull of wanting more and bearing a distance from any sort of present tense. A sour “Don’t Bother Me” is ironically stacked against a more longing “Shine the Light on Me”. Even though the album’s title seems to beckon for the crowd, its contents beg for the sake of that same undisclosed “me”. It’s personal but never comes totally aware of its self-centeredness. On the almost-title track, that same “us” is exchanged for a “me”, as a request to “get it off my mind”. White’s tackling of the American zeitgeist and the technological revolution is respectably unveiled (he’s been no stranger about his stance on cell phones, at least in a public setting), but this record comes simultaneously with a stench of the passive, stubborn observer, as though its narrator has found secret contentment in an angry, unproductive resistance. White has never sounded more threatened or more firmly footed in a specific mode of thought. On “Bored and Razed” we find him “[s]taying away from the left and the right”. On “Don’t Bother Me”, he comes off like a bitter dad, fed up with “[a]ll your clicking and swiping”. It’s an ethos that may have been fascinating and often was, on a record like Boarding House Reach, which was so off the walls and forward-thinking in its sound that its older craftsman’s sour notions came with an occasionally enlightening conflict of ideology. As for The Raconteurs’ more pastiche-y sound, well, it does little to harrowingly compliment White’s grumpy shtick.
“Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)” does a good deal to reset the record’s focus. Rather than finding Jack sneering outwards, it becomes a ballad of introspection. It’s the album’s standout cut, especially when complemented by an acoustic finale which evolves into but doesn’t indulge in, a maximal, crunchy jam. Following that is a ridiculous, ill-advised Donovan cover, with the project’s bounciest percussion. It’s almost fun but sounds like it would better suit a Third Man Records’ 7” than as a means to open this particular record’s B-side.
“Live a Lie”, an ironically intended rock ditty, fetishizes that same dishonesty within a modern relationship. “I like it better when you lie to me, Well, I can’t take all this honesty, And I don’t need to know the cold hard truth, I just wanna live a lie with you”. The song’s too-easy rhyme scheme makes whatever the song itself is anecdotal for pointless. If it’s another middle finger at cell phone culture or a critique on modern media and politics, it hardly comes to make any difference. It’s the album’s shortest, flattest take. Closing track “Thoughts and Prayers” isn’t as obvious in its lyrical contents as it may appear, instead opting for a folksier tale with a pronounced fiddle appearance and a more tempered structure. It may sound a bit like a mashup of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” and Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore”, but it’s at least relaxed, and a successfully epic way to close out an album that otherwise never feels like it’s truly coming off of any sort of long wait.
For an album that plays like it has everything to prove, even if it doesn’t sound like The Raconteurs took any real time off to think through its pattern, it’s the quieter tracks that sell it. The more unassuming hiatus-breakers stick, while its noisy spills into bombast make the album feel dated on impact. If The Raconteurs are headed back into hibernation, it’s still just another blip on White’s radar. If they’re back to stay, and even if just for the sake of Jack’s next solo endeavor, he could learn that a more restrained sound doesn’t soften his talent, but accentuates it more than any one of his garage rock overkills.