Over ten years has passed since the release of Consolers of the Lonely, the album from the the Raconteurs that is the direct predecessor of their latest, Help Us Stranger. Any reasonable music fan might have wondered if the band was still any sort of ongoing concern, especially as individual members bounded off to other projects. The diversions taken by the professionally mercurial Jack White have been most prominent, but his Raconteurs co-songwriter Brendan Benson has also released three solo albums in the interim and taken of plenty of producing gigs. Drummer Patrick Keeler and bassist Jack Lawrence cycled back to the their band the Greenhornes and each picked up plenty of side jobs, including with White’s other endeavors, such as solo outings and his band the Dead Weather. The more time passed, I suspect the less curiosity there was about a third album by the Raconteurs. So Help Us Stranger arrives to a tricky question: What makes this record necessary?
Maybe necessary is too harsh a standard. It could be enough that the album contains enough strong cuts to be a happy diversion. “Bored and Razed” sounds like a Firehose song enduring a hostile takeover by Kiss, and it would only take the most minor of production tweaks to make “Shine the Light on Me” pass for a vintage XTC dazzler. The flinty, rambunctious cover of Donovan’s “Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness)” could have been dropped anywhere, onto a soundtrack or tacked on to last year’s Consolers of the Lonely anniversary rerelease. Instead, it’s here, right in the middle of everything, giving the impression of a band of crack musicians happily at play. The ambling “Only Child” is good, as is “Don’t Bother Me,” which is probably the cut that comes closest to White’s trademark runaway-train rock. It’s all fun and smart and well-played, and that should be enough.
Because White is there, right at the front, I keep instinctually wanting to force Help Us Stranger to be more than it is. Except for the legacy artists making what could be the throat clears to their closing statements, White can seem like the last rocker standing right now. He’s a constant toiler who still believes in the primacy of records and the basic structures of the immediate descendants of the blues, even as the rest of the music industry is shunting his loves to the side in favor of manufactured sonic gizmos cycling through the fleeting privilege of being runner-up to “Old Town Road,” our permanent #1 and future National Anthem. Forget the cosplay of Greta Van Fleet and other acts rummaging through the till at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. When White and his cohorts tear into “Live a Lie” like it’s some long lost late-nineteen-seventies power pop classic, intoning lyrics of profound simplicity (“I like it better when you tell me lies/ When you hide what’s behind those eyes “), they really mean it.
I suppose that’s it. The answer is simple. Help Us Stranger is necessary, or at least valuable, because the Raconteurs really mean it. In the calculus of rock ‘n’ roll, nothing matters more.