Photo Credit: Vance Powell
When last we left our heroes the Raconteurs more than a decade ago, they had scored two gold albums and a hit single, “Steady as She Goes”, lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Jack White was still half of the White Stripes, and Raconteurs co-lead Brendan Benson was also plowing forward with his promising solo work.
Since then, White has traded in his Stripes for his own successful solo career. Benson, by contrast, has yet to reach his potential on his own, at least commercially. Hence, in 2019 the Raconteurs – which also includes bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler – probably come off less as a supergroup than a superstar-and-some-other-guys project like Todd Rundgren’s underrated Utopia or David Bowie’s short-lived Tin Machine.
Either way, the Raconteurs’ new album, Help Us Stranger, was by-and-large worth the wait. It may seem like it’s been much longer than eleven years, but depressing world events which’ve transpired in the ensuing time can’t be entirely to blame: much of Help Us Stranger derives its sound from circa the Nixon years, specifically the Beatles’ last stand and the heartfelt-if-less-meteoric rise of some of those who came in their wake.
This aspect of the record is perfectly capsulized by the title track, a bouncy rocker in the vein of the Guess Who, Grand Funk Railroad, and other bands of the Almost Famous era. The opening thirty seconds of the track are a total fake-out, an otherwise-uncharacteristic (intentionally) badly recorded folk ditty, making it just one of several tracks with multiple varied sections which create a sort of Abby Road Side 2 mini-rock opera. The same could be said for “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying),” which even takes its guitar sound heavily from the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”
However, a more direct approach typical of Paul McCartney (which White already touched upon with the Stripes’ track “We’re Going to Be Friends”) is captured perfectly on the tight and irresistible track, “Only Child.” The song also sports some wonderfully weird synthesizer riffs in the instrumental breaks, which are probably more reflective of Macca’s solo work from the ‘80s. By unfortunate contrast, “Now That You’re Gone” is no more interesting or original than its title, coming off more like filler from a ‘70s solo album by an ex-Beatle (just pick one at random).
“Shine a Light on Me” isn’t much more promising title-wise, but luckily the piano-heavy song itself compensates. The message contained within is an unmistakable throwback: “But we don’t need to know // How the flowers grow // Let’s just be happy that they can,” and the harmonies tend to resemble pre-disco Bee Gees trying to sound like the Beatles. “Sunday Driver” takes another odd and unexpected route to the Fab Four, being more reminiscent of Sloan and similar Beatles-inspired bands from the turn of this century.
“Live a Lie” is in a similar musical vein, and on an album which personal introspection does not seem like the priority, contains the most unflinchingly honest lyrics: “I just wanna lie with you // I just wanna live a lie with you.” On the subject of lying, “Thoughts and Prayers” – with its title taken from the ultimately meaningless stock response of the pro-gun lobby to every mass shooting – is a perfect album closer. While only a few lines of the song, if that, could conceivably be interpreted as addressing gun violence: “I used to give my friends a call // Now there’s no one left at all.” The song echoes Blind Faith’s classic “Can’t Find My Way Home,” also being about trying to make sense of a senseless world, an ode to a time when the phrase “thoughts and prayers” actually legitimately meant thoughts and prayers.
Despite a shortcoming or two, Help Us Stranger is an utterly gratifying release, with a balance of quirky and seriousness as well-symmetrized as that between White and Benson. But as for the long absence, are the Raconteurs speaking about themselves on “Only Child”? The lyrics state: “The prodigal son // He came back home again to get his laundry done.” No problem. As long as we don’t have to wait another eleven years for the next Raconteurs album, we’ll even throw in the fabric softener.