It all started with a phone call. A very angry phone call… to DJ Electra.
You may not know the name by heart, but DJ Electra hosts a show on rock station Q101 out of Chicago. Some three weeks before the White Stripes’ acclaimed 2007 effort Icky Thump hit shelves, Electra snagged a leaked copy online and played the new disc in its entirety on her show, hoping to get a fair share of listeners as well as an early reaction to this heralded return to form (following the Stripes’ jumbled ’05 disc Get Behind Me Satan). What reaction did it generate? An angry one. Jack White — on tour with Meg in Spain — heard that the disc got leaked and decided to call in and give Electra a piece of his mind. White’s torrent of venom was surprising, lambasting the host for playing the album well before its release date, then justifying his call-out because this kind of piracy agitated him as both a musician and a label head. As DJ Electra sat there stunned by White’s sudden rant, she wound up inadvertently setting the wheels in motion for the quixotic album that is Consolers of the Lonely.
In the post-In Rainbows world, White’s “our album is now done and will be out in a week” announcement isn’t all that surprising, but perhaps the only thing more surprising is Warner Bros. Records’ decision to actually indulge White’s wild-hare: they were handed the mastered version of the album only two days before the band made their announcement. Some thought that the band knew that their record was poor, and shipping it to the press and public at the same time would curb any negative word-of-mouth. Others just saw it as a knee-jerk reaction to the DJ Electra fiasco (which is almost certainly the case). Yet Consolers faces the same issue that In Rainbows did prior to its release: as fun and exciting as these “spur of the moment” record releases are, it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if the music ain’t up to snuff.
But what makes Consolers of the Lonely such a strange listen is simply how disorienting it is. If you enjoyed the Nuggets-styled power pop telegrams that so peppered Broken Boy Soldiers, then brace yourself: they’re nowhere to be found. In its place? Allman Brothers-styled album rock and a diminished spotlight on Brendan Benson. Even though Benson (as top-shelf a pop-rock guru as they come) still shares all of the songwriting and production credits with White, his turns at the mic are severely limited, thereby inadvertently turning the Raconteurs into the Jack White Show. Indeed, White’s trademark guitar crunch can be heard right from the get-go and it doesn’t let up: the album’s title track starts with a stylized slow-burning riff that soon explodes into a full-band flurry, a crazed White yelping all the way about his current state of existence.
“Consolers of the Lonely” veers wildly from Patrick Keeler’s punk-like drumming to White and Benson stacking their vocal harmonies over each other like they’re Crosby, Stills and Nash. It’s immediately followed by lead single “Salute Your Solution”, a track that easily recalls the six-string fanfare of Zeppelin’s debut… too easily, in fact. Though these two songs immediately establish the Raconteurs as a changed band, they also wind up setting the template for the rest of the disc: a long, drawn-out game of Spot the Influence. Even though Consolers is meant as a tribute to the great rock bands of the ’70s, the whole affair feels largely derivative, a shallow reflection of the legendary songs they’re trying to imitate.
According to “You Don’t Understand Me”, the band says that it’s for you to easier to please them than to tease them, a phrase that comes off as a sly wink to those who have doubted the band before. Though “Understand” desperately wants to be a love song, it’s hard not to read it as a swipe at the band’s naysayers, especially when the chorus moves away from the me/you mentality of its verses and shifts to a declarative we/us statement: “There’s always another point of view / A better way to do the things we do.” Despite their wishes, the band still leaves itself open for many a critical swipe.
During the album’s latter half, the band begins retreating a lot of the same ground, like on “Pull This Blanket Off” in which White actually steals the vocal melody from his own Stripes song (“White Moon”). “Five on the Five”, meanwhile, feels like Benson is deliberately challenging himself to write a White-styled riff-rocker, the whole thing feeling undercooked and ham-fisted. Even the big trumpet-assisted grandiose pop moment (“The Switch and the Spur”) runs into splitting the difference between a climactic chorus and a messy, primitive verse structure, neither half gelling together in the ways that they should.
“How you gonna top yourself?” White asks on the stuttering mid-tempo rocker appropriately titled “Top Yourself”. It’s a good question to ask the band, and fortunately for us, there are still many great moments in which the group actually steps things up a notch in order to overcome their doe-eyed hero worship. “Old Enough”, for example, genuinely feels like an Allman Brothers B-side, its message of self-humility set against a lively mix of joyous fiddles and playful rock organs. “Hold Up”, meanwhile, shows Benson at his rip-roaring best. It’s here where he mixes angst with a feel-good barn-burning chord progression, the results nothing less than magical (and just wait until they break out the guitar solos!).
“Many Shades of Black” (a song about realizing that the one you’re with isn’t the one you’re meant for) and the violent story-song “Carolina Drama” are also top-notch additions to the Raconteurs growing canon, but White and Benson — being the elliptical oddballs that they are — wind up saving their best performances for a cover song. On the “Rich Kid Blues”, the band turns the traditional folk ballad into a powerful stadium-rocking epic filled with huge choruses and some excited vocal performances. Why does it work? Simple: it’s one of the few moments on Consolers in which the band stops trying so hard to make “serious” rock music and absolutely lets loose. They sound like they’re having fun, particularly when White being shredding his voice during the first chorus. Needless to say, it’s thrilling.
There are two things that Jack White doesn’t like in this world: 1) having his records leaked, and 2) being pigeonholed. It’s hard not to view Consolers as a sharp reaction to those who simply wrote off Broken Boy Soldiers as a radio-friendly detour for White’s oft-neglected sense of whimsy. Consolers of the Lonely isn’t as much a difficult album as it is a necessary one: it’s the disc where the band stretches out and experiments, giving six-string smooches to the greats that have gone before them in exchange for their spontaneity and immediacy.
Consolers is a labored album, the product of much studio tinkering and a desperate need for the band to prove themselves as a “serious” outfit. The problem is that they never needed to: Benson’s One Mississippi is one of the finest pop albums released in the past decade, the Greenhornes were always heralded as top-notch garage-rock revivalists, and the White Stripes are still the epitome of cool. No, Consolers of the Lonely isn’t a great record, but for a sophomore slump, they could’ve done a lot worse.