The Raconteurs’ third album, Help Us Stranger, came out two weeks ago. Pitchfork was quick to review, giving it a mediocre 6.4. I am not here to contest this rating. I quite agree that Help Us Stranger is overall a disappointment, and I’m not the world’s biggest Raconteurs fan myself. But I take issue with what motivated the 6.4. I know that music is subjective, but a lot of things in the review feel … wrong. Maybe I don’t read a lot of music reviews. Maybe I actually listen to The Raconteurs. I don’t really know.
First a disclaimer: this post is not really meant to be a defense of The Raconteurs. It’s more meant to be an attack against bad journalism.
While I don’t really want to give clicks to an incorrect review, since this is in essence a review of a review, you probably should just read it here. It’s short anyway.
I’ll ignore the (incorrect) comment about “Steady, As She Goes” and jump right into the review.
Some light improvisation in the recording booth lends spontaneity without veering into the self-indulgence that so plagued White’s latest solo album, 2018’s Boarding House Reach. Off-the-cuff flourishes abound. Nigh-title track “Help Me Stranger” opens with a brief, bluesy rendition in miniature by the band’s bassist, Jack Lawrence, equalized to sound like Jimmie Rodgers on an old 78. “Now That You’re Gone,” too, is a welcome change: In its verses, the narrator lashes out, petty and vindictive, at a former lover—“Where you gonna go? Not that I care!”—only to slip in the chorus and lay bare his own lonely stupor: “What will I do now that you’re gone?” Without sacrificing sonic or thematic coherence, the Raconteurs vary their approach enough that each individual track sparkles.
The article introduces criticisms that are wholly valid, and then supports them with the worst possible evidence. A minimal intro meant to sound like it’s coming through a radio. Why, of all things, would you pick this as an example of “improvisation” or even a “flourish”? How about the whiny guitar sounds in “Now That You’re Gone,” “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying),” or “Sunday Driver”? How about the light improvisation that happens literally right after the bluesy intro in “Help Me Stranger”? It is completely accurate to say that Help Us Stranger is filled with the sort of spontaneity that the author describes. It is not accurate to cite either of the above two examples as evidence of it.
The guitarist’s noodling (I presume it to be White’s) plagues most of the tracks on the album, and while on rare occasions it adds to a song, most of the time his inability to produce pleasing sounds just makes for an annoying distraction from the actual music. Help Us Stranger is an album with a lot of potential, and these sorts of things are what ruined it. Also, if this album has “less self-indulgence,” I really don’t want to hear Jack White’s latest.
With regard to the last sentence, I’d like to point out that “Now That You’re Gone” and “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)” are both in 6⁄8 with the same sort of acoustic Brendan Benson vibe. And that “Don’t Bother Me,” “What’s Yours Is Mine,” and (to a lesser extent) “Bored and Razed” have a faster, angrier feel with White screaming in the verses and Benson supporting between his shouting fits. And that “Live a Lie”s chorus and the chorus of “Somedays” are both similarly chromatic. The album is pretty schizophrenic, but it isn’t quite an “individual track sparkles” sort of album. This isn’t a major downside - most albums are not like this - but it also isn’t an accurate claim.
But even the album’s brightest moments are colored by a kind of dull, grey disdain. Attempts to conjure bluesy commiseration and evoke alienation are uniformly bloodless. “Don’t Bother Me” is a poor choice for a rock refrain; the song’s rage is so impotent it may as well have been titled “Get Off My Lawn.” Other songs are undercut by static simplicity: “Some days, I just feel like crying/Some days, I don’t feel like trying.” Clunky as these lyrics are on the page, they’re diminished even further by the sheer lack of conviction in White and Benson’s vocal delivery. Their tone throughout is one of boredom, even irritation—with themselves, with anyone who might be listening, with the mundanities of making music.
Let me just say that attempting to make a good point by taking something that sort of makes sense and smothering it in high diction is not what makes for good writing. Come on, that entire second sentence essentially is trying to say what the first is trying to, which is that The Raconteurs don’t convey their message with conviction. I don’t even agree with this claim either.
Before I get to that point, I wanted to address another thing. I assume the “Get Off My Lawn” comment is trying to be a snide claim that Benson and White are middle-aged rockers trying to be relevant, but this album really was no “Doom and Gloom.” Though certainly not good, it isn’t quite as bad in its meaning as the author is trying to make it seem. OK, “trolling myself in the mirror at night” from “Bored and Razed” may compete with “Doom and Gloom”, but I honestly have no clue what Jack White is trying to say in that entire song so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
Getting back to it, I have a lot to say about the comment on static simplicity. First, I don’t hear the lack of conviction in the chorus. But even if it were lacking, the song really sets its tone with the melancholy guitar that is interspersed between the singing, one of the rare occasions that we don’t hear White’s obnoxious guitar sound.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, I refuse to let slip how “impotent” the criticism about the lyrics is. The refrain is not amazing, but bad lyrics are no stranger to rock, or really any music with lyrics. We’ve undoubtedly heard more popular songs with bad lyrics than good ones. “I’d Love to Change the World” comes to mind, with a rhyme that is comically bad: “Life is funny / skies are sunny / bees make honey / who needs money.” Or how about one from “Sunday Driver,” “It ain’t right / It ain’t wrong / It’s a fact / Sing my song.” Sing your song, indeed.
What astounds me is that the author would criticize “Somedays” for having “static simplicity” and “clunky lyrics” and fail to mention the lines repeated ad nauseum at the end of the song: “I’m here right now / I’m not dead yet.” These are significantly worse than the refrain. They are repeated 20 times and they don’t even rhyme! The passengers in my car, who normally don’t pay much attention to the music I play, much less their lyrics, commented on how annoyingly repetitive the line was.
And it’s not just “Somedays” that can be faulted for its lyrics: practically half the tracks on the album attempt to pass off wordplay as cleverness. Take a gander.
- “Bored and Razed”
- “California bored and razed” (“born and raised”)
- “Rolling a juke box joint in the corner” (“jukebox,” “juke joint,” and “rolling a joint”)
- “Pouring the coffee out onto the grounds” (“coffee grounds”)
- “Laying the cardinal sins on the table” (“Laying the cards on the table”)
- “Help Me Stranger”
- “Brother, can you spare the time?” (“Brother, can you spare a dime?”)
- “Shine the Light on Me”
- “But it’s so enlightening when you need to shine the light on me” (“enlightening” and “shine the light”)
- “Live a Lie”
- “I just wanna lie with you / I just wanna live a lie with you” (“lie with” and “live a lie with”)
- “What’s Yours is Mine”
- “What’s Yours is Mine” (“What’s mine is yours”)
This is just a (probably incomplete) list of bad wordplay alone, which excludes the other examples of bad lyricism on Help Us Stranger. I’m not incredibly bothered by bad lyrics since I think most lyrics are pretty bad anyway, but if you’re going to critique a band for writing bad lyrics, at least cite the actually bad ones.
The songs of Help Us Stranger often succeed only because they succeeded before, decades ago, as better songs. Tapping your foot to the giddy “Live A Lie” is fun until you recognize, in a too-familiar riff, a limp effort to conjure the anarchic, animal spirit of “Fell in Love With a Girl.” The piano lines and orotund group harmonies of “Shine the Light on Me” land like painted-by-numbers Sgt. Pepper’s, less tribute than hacky pageantry. The Raconteurs have never been coy about pastiche, but on this record, their motivation for mining the past feels firmly rooted in fear of the unfamiliar. White’s rapping on Boarding House Reach offered, at least, the perverse thrill of real transgression. Here, he never takes any risk so great that failure presents a real possibility. The band’s few efforts to innovate on their own catalogue are peccadilloes in the grand scheme: a new amp here, a new pedal setting there. The result is an air of timidity that dampens the pleasures this album does offer.
Hold on a second. “Live a Lie” and “Fell in Love With a Girl”. I seriously hope that I’m just missing the “too-familiar riff” when I relistened to “Fell in Love With a Girl,” since all I heard was a generic four chord song with a garage rock sound. You know what bears more resemblance to “Live a Lie”? “Come On”. Which would make sense, as it’s by Brendan Benson, who’s singing on “Live a Lie”. Even though he and White started the band, I guess he only gets credit for his contributions in passing. “Live a Lie” is totally evocative of Benson’s pop rock, maybe with a little bit of White’s angst thrown in the mix. If it is meant to be an attempt to “conjure the anarchic, animal spirit” of “Fell in Love With a Girl,” it does not come even close to being a “limp effort.”
Other indie rock groups—supergroups, like boygenius even—are presently making music that is orders of magnitude greater than this record, often with vastly less experience, vastly fewer resources, and vastly higher barriers to entry. Recall the indelible moment in “Me & My Dog,” where Phoebe Bridgers’ voice becomes a scooped-out husk of itself, and she murmurs, ashamed, “I cried at your show with the teenagers.” Even in her own song, she is at somebody else’s show, her story dissolving into a crowd of other stories. The Raconteurs, by contrast, would never lower themselves to the level of their audience. They understand their presence on the stage as a given, not something to be earned anew. They have always stood in the spotlight. They assume that they always will.
To bring the review to a close, we get a final example that makes me ask the question, “Did you listen to any of this music?”
First, a last gripe about lyrics. I couldn’t recall the “indelible moment” in “Me & My Dog” since I hadn’t heard the song, so I listened to it. Maybe I don’t have the ear for subtle changes, but Bridgers’ voice seems to be the same throughout the song. She doesn’t “murmur” that lyric more than she “murmurs” any other in the song. And, OK, she’s describing herself in the audience, but if her story were “dissolving into a crowd of other stories,” why is the damned song still about her and the unnamed “you”? The author is reaching really hard here to draw some sort of conclusion.
Curious about what made boygenius lyrical exemplars, I thumbed through the lyrics of the rest of their EP. Every single song looks to be about love, sadness, and the unnamed “you.” Recall the variation in theme of Help Us Stranger, even if the lyrics are often weak. The Raconteurs, as one might guess, are often storytellers. “Sunday Driver,” “Only Child,” or older tracks like “Carolina Drama” and “The Switch and the Spur” all tell stories with their lyrics. One would think that singing songs that narrate a story rather than giving a first person account would, by the author’s logic, make a band not self-centered.
Second, let’s talk about “Me & My Dog” as a song. The author claims it’s “vastly” better than the tracks on Help Us Stranger. This is a markedly important point in the review. It reveals his agenda. Music will always be subjective, which is why I’m starting to think that reading reviews that don’t come from a single, reliably-biased source may be foolish. We didn’t know the author’s agenda throughout the entire review. And now he’s laid the cardinal sins on the table, so to speak.
“Me & My Dog” is a song that puts me to sleep. It is pretty much a flat line throughout the entire song and lacks power. Power, not in the emotion it conveys, but in its audio signal. Just compare how the dynamics vary in it and “Help Me Stranger.” To its credit, it builds up a little through the song, but it’s the kind of subtle increase that doesn’t regain my already-lost attention. It takes a very special song to get me to listen without any drums, or even the kind of minimal drums that appear later. The other songs on the EP seem similar.
So what, I dislike that song. Why does this matter? Because for many of the reasons I dislike that song, I like The Raconteurs. I was expecting, perhaps even hoping, that Help Us Stranger would not be like the boygenius EP. And I think this can be said of everyone who was waiting for it. Even of everyone who should give it a listen. If you were somehow expecting The Raconteurs to compete with the likes of boygenius, then you would be just like the author. Someone who seemingly has not listened to their music.
How about a comparison to The Black Keys? As a band, they have a sound much more similar to that of The Raconteurs. Really, how about anyone else in a remotely similar genre?
Overall, I agree that Help Us Stranger was mostly a disappointment. But Pitchfork’s review was more. While I would not consider The Raconteurs one of my favorite bands, I have actually listened to enough of their music to tell you that Help Us Stranger is not great. I would not say either of their previous albums are exemplary, but I think both are at least as good as Help Us Stranger, which is sad since I was hoping that it would be a standout album.
In particular, I think that the Benson/White interaction on this album mostly contributed to a sum less than its individual parts. If you stripped the obnoxious White guitar parts out of songs like “Somedays” (and please, remove the ending), you’d have a solid track. “Bored and Razed” has a good chorus, and verses ruined by White. Maybe I’ll just wait for the next Brendan Benson album. For what it’s worth I think that “Live a Lie,” which sounds just like a Benson song, is also not good and would be much better suited as a B-side.
However, this doesn’t mean I don’t think Help Us Stranger isn’t worth a listen. There are a few good tracks, and if you appreciate the direction Jack White’s music is going, you may like it more than I did. My favorites of the album are, in order, “Help Me Stranger,” “Only Child,” “Now That You’re Gone,” and “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying).”