review: The Raconteurs’ comeback album is the Jack White album we needed
At this point, it's probably safe to consider Jack White a rock legend, but he has also become a punchline, even to people who revere (or at least once revered) his work. Rock is largely considered less fashionable and more backwards-thinking than ever, but even by rock's standards, Jack White gets painted as a luddite. He gets framed as the guy who wages a war on cellphones, parody articles joke that his creative process is to bang on a tin can with a shovel. Forget Dad Rock; as far as the stereotypes go, Jack White is Great Grandfather Rock.
It's all a bit of an exaggeration of course, and it was easy to not take the jokes too seriously when they were offset by quality music. After The White Stripes sadly ended, solo albums like Blunderbuss and Lazaretto proved he could remain a star on his own and write plenty of good bluesy indie rock jams in the process. But it became harder to not see Jack as an increasingly out of touch rocker after he put out the bloated, overproduced Boarding House Reach last year. If you went into that album thinking Jack White was already as washed up as the '60s and '70s rockers he has long been influenced by, listening to the record probably wouldn't change your mind.
What might change your mind, though, is seeing him live. I caught the Boarding House Reach tour twice (once at Boston Calling and once at Governors Ball), and it was very clear at those shows that Jack still walks the walk. Boarding House Reach was overproduced, but live he still rocks. His current live shows have both a jam-band style looseness and a punk energy, and he can still blow away huge crowds with the pure power of his voice and guitar. It reminds you that Jack was punk from the start (revisit The White Stripes on Letterman in 2001 and then find a late night TV performance that punk from 2019) (you can't), and that he's still got it today, even if his most recent solo work doesn't reflect it.
We may never get another Jack White album that recalls the grittier sounds of his early days -- maybe it's not what Jack wants, or maybe it's not what his major label wants -- but, out of the blue this past December we got something else to scratch that itch: the unexpected return of The Raconteurs, the band Jack co-leads with Brendan Benson. They released two new songs, one of which was the fiery garage rocker "Sunday Driver," the most badass song Jack White had released in years.
Fast forward six months, and those are two of the songs on The Raconteurs' first album in a decade, Help Us Stranger. A White Stripes reunion is the Jack White-related reunion that most people want -- and if it ever happens, it will probably be awesome -- but this Raconteurs reunion may just be the one that both Jack and his fans needed. Help Us Stranger is a lot rawer sounding than Boarding House Reach (it's even a bit rawer than the last Raconteurs album), and the way Jack tells it, the collaborative process was really freeing for him. "I’m only 25% of the band. We’re all doing something together, and that feels really good," he tells Billboard. The Raconteurs also chose to put out the album on Jack's own Third Man Records (home to a diverse roster that spans from Sleep to Margo Price) instead of a major label like The Raconteurs' last album and his own last solo album, and maybe the lower-key release also helped lower the stakes and give the band some more freedom. And for all the talk of rock being out of fashion, co-frontman Brendan Benson is not just self-aware about it, he says it motivated them. "We do recognize that rock’n’roll is out of favor at the moment," he told Billboard, who also points out that he "believes that hip-hop is the most exciting genre right now." "But it was more of a reason to make a rock’n’roll record -- it had to be done."
For more where "Sunday Driver" came from, Help Us Stranger is home to "Live A Lie," which clocks in at under two and a half minutes and hearkens back to the proto-punk of Jack and Brendan's Detroit hometown. Other than that, the album doesn't actually have too much in the way of rippers, but it finds other ways to rock out and freak out as this kind of music should. Brendan Benson brings back a nice dose of the kind of British Invasion psychedelia that he brought to the first Raconteurs album, and Jack finds more than a few times to rip solos that remind you why some people already call him a guitar god. Elsewhere on the album, The Raconteurs echo anything from Queen ("Shine The Light On Me") to early Bowie ("Thoughts and Prayers") to the Grateful Dead (the beginning of "Bored and Razed"). And then there's album centerpiece "Sometimes (I Don't Feel Like Trying)," which is like an amalgamation of everything you might hear on classic rock radio and it somehow manages to still feel fresh. The verses are like a cross between "Tuesday's Gone" and "Wonderful Tonight," the hook is a dead ringer for "Whipping Post," and it ends with a glammy hard rock coda that you could picture working for anyone from the Stones to T. Rex. It can feel a little like Name That Tune, but The Raconteurs add just enough of their own flair that it works.
The album also includes one actual cover song, Donovan's "Hey Gyp (Dig The Slowness)," but Brendan, Jack & co take the Dylan-esque original and make it sound like Zeppelin. Help Us Stranger also has its missteps, like "Don't Bother Me" -- which overuses its silly hook and makes Jack sound a thousand years old when he yells about "all your clicking and swiping!" -- but for the most part, the bad is far outweighed by the good. The Raconteurs set out to fill a void and they succeeded. It doesn't feel like Great Grandfather Rock; it brings me back to how hip The Raconteurs seemed when Broken Boy Soldiers came out and the "Steady, As She Goes" video was dominating MTV. And The Raconteurs' comeback comes with a great music video too. As dead as rock might be, music videos are probably even more dead, but the video for "Sunday Driver" brings me right back to the days when I sat in front of the TV waiting for something like "Steady, As She Goes" or "Seven Nation Army" to come on, and having a genuinely cool rock video in 2019 is a minor miracle of its own.
Help Us Stranger comes out Friday (6/21) via Third Man Records,
and we'll update with a stream once it's out. Until then, watch the "Sunday Driver" video and check out a few other songs/videos from the album below.
UPDATE: Album out now. Listen: