The Raconteurs album is playing for the second time this morning, and I’ve just got round to reading the paperwork which arrived in my inbox with the download just before 9am. “Consolers Of The Lonely”, it notes, is “loud, bombastic and littered with changes of tempo.” Can’t argue with any of that.
It’s also, I think, very good indeed, although those aforementioned changes of tempo are so frequent and convoluted – though delivered with such thunderous vigour – that it’s hard to come to many firm conclusions about this second Raconteurs album at speed. I’ll have a go, anyway.
The first thing that hits you is the bright, massive sound of “Consolers Of The Lonely”. If “Broken Boy Soldiers” necessarily introduced a fuller and more intricate musical side to Jack White, its sequel really ups the ante. More even than “Icky Thump”, it finds White, Brendan Benson and chums getting to grips with the fearsome possibilities offered by a modern recording studio and a budget. The rigorous limitations that White imposes on himself for White Stripes projects are conspicuously flung out of the window here. I’m sure White still operated under some arcane, quixotic strictures. But generally, “Consolers Of The Lonely” sounds like the work of untethered spirits, generally up for anything.
So as I type, “Many Shades Of Black” is playing, a tremendous blaring soul belter fronted by Benson, and with one of those high end spluttering solos (by White, presumably, though experience has taught us not to jump to conclusions where The Raconteurs are concerned), grappling with a big southern soul horn section. It’s the next level up from the mariachi-guitar face-off on the Stripes’ “Conquest”, and it’s phenomenal.
Come here looking for psych power-pop in the vein of “Steady, As She Goes”, and I think you may be disappointed. “Consolers Of The Lonely” is a much harsher, abrupt, furious and garish record than its predecessor. If “Broken Boy Soldiers” sounded fundamentally brown, smelled enticingly musty, this one is all dazzlingly over-saturated red. Like The White Stripes of course, and there are plenty of songs here, like the explosive “Attention” playing right now, which are distinctly reminiscent of Jack’n’Meg’s dynamic blues-rock punch – fleshed out, of course and elaborated.
I guess there’s a slight fear that, once the grandly impressive first impact of the album’s sound wears off, some of these songs might be actually too elaborate for their own good. But then the last song, “Carolina Drama”, comes round, and those sort of worries evaporate. Our speedy colleagues over at NME have already compared this one to Dylan’s “Isis”, and there’s certainly something like that behind “Carolina Drama”: a new, mature narrative voice from White, an unravelling, hyper-detailed story of a brawl involving a guy called Billy, his mom, a preacher, and a bottle of milk as an offensive weapon. There are interludes involving a ghostly female vocal, some Scarlett Rivera-ish fiddle, and a general sense that, if he chooses to follow that path, Jack White might turn out to be one of the most plausible ‘New Dylans’ these past four decades have thrown up.
Third play now. The album begins with chatter, of which someone saying “double-track that” is clear beneath the big riffs. Benson takes the lead, followed by White at his most shrill and frenetic, as the title track stretches out into a kind of highly charged sprawl, switchbacking from one to the other, via disorienting choral breaks, needling solos and so on. As a statement of intent, it works much like “Icky Thump”: a big, vivid break from lo-fi tradition, a curious rethink of classic rock, without anything much in the way of a conventional chorus.
“Salute Your Solution”, the first single, is every bit as awkward, with a staticky guitar break, great drumming from Patrick Keeler, and a complexity that I could lazily term punk-blues-prog, but would probably regret later. “You Don’t Understand Me” is a relatively gentle throwback to the first Raconteurs album, with a marvellous brokeback piano hook, White at his most imploring, and some of those smeary, Beatlesy harmonies from Benson.
With this listen, the subtleties are becoming more apparent. “Old Enough” finds Benson and a Dave Swarbrick-ish fiddle driving them into some cherishable hinterland between Southern Rock (think of the Stripes’ “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, perhaps) and Fairport Convention. It’s audacious, not a little daft, and utterly tremendous.
As is “The Switch And The Spur”, a wry cowboy melodrama with some heroic trumpet voluntaries, grandiose piano flourishes, and the imperishable air of a band having a very good time in the studio. “Hold Up” is a slashing Stripes punker (Keeler hammering away surprisingly like Meg), as is the pinched and thrilling “Five On The Five”. “Top Yourself” begins as bayou blues, all slide and murky ambience, with Jack asking, perhaps self-reflexively, “How you gonna top yourself, when there is nobody else?” A banjo arrives, the drums appear to be old crates surrounded by very expensive mics, and White radiates that air of curdled threat and wounded pride at which he excels.
Which just leaves “Pull This Blanket Off”, a brief development on those camp piano country ballads like “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)”. “Rich Kid Blues”, a ridiculous bit of ‘70s stadium pomp whose antecedents I can’t exactly place right now – something off a late Led Zeppelin album, maybe (to fall back on a reliable old Jack White reference point)? And “These Stones Will Shout” – Led Zeppelin again, I think, but the acoustic side of “Led Zeppelin III” – for the first half, at least.
Three plays, some rough thoughts, and an immensely enjoyable album. “Consolers Of The Lonely” is a very modern-sounding record in an ancient tradition, and the sheer blinding technoflash of much here might be offputting to those who remain loyal to Jack White’s initial, hugely seductive aesthetic. I can see that, but as “Carolina Drama” starts up again, the Dylan reference becomes even more apposite: here’s a man whose talent – to amaze and to confound – is too big to be restricted to one schtick.
“Consolers Of The Lonely” is out today, of course; let me know what you think when you’ve had a listen.