Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we follow Jack White’s career from his 1999 eponymous debut with The White Stripes to his most recent effort with The Raconteurs, 2019’s Help Us Stranger.
It’s been 20 years since The White Stripes released their debut record. While the traditional blues-covering, garage-rock duo didn’t immediately impact the rock and roll scene, it would only be a couple of years before The New York Times would proclaim, “[The White Stripes] have made rock rock again.”
Jack White’s zeal for music’s rawness, a trait passed down to him from blues legends like Blind Willie McTell as well as Detroit garage rock pioneers like The Gories, arrived at a perfect time in music history when the spirit of grunge was fizzling out and pop music was reaching a peak in artificiality. Over the past 20 years, that zeal has allowed White to explore many different musical traditions across four separate projects. But while each project remains distinct in its identity, White’s devotion to what’s real and true (a characteristic that has recently led him to banning cell phones at his concerts) has fueled a careful balance in his music of both homage and innovation.
“There aren’t that many things left that haven’t already been done, especially with music,” Jack White once said. “I’m interested in ideas that can shake us all up.” While we’ll need to wait with White a little longer for the next rock icon to inject a new “punk attitude,” for now, we’re happy to celebrate the work of one of the 21st century’s greatest rock creators and advocates, who 15 albums into his career continues to shake us all up.
15. The Raconteurs – Broken Boy Soldiers (2006)
Runtime: 33:42 (10 tracks)
“They’re Gonna Rip It Off” (Best Song): While much of Broken Boy Soldiers is unexceptional, The Raconteurs’ debut single, “Steady, As She Goes”, remains a staple of aughts rock. The intro slowly builds with thick snare hits, a thumping bass line, and a quivering, self-conscious lead guitar line before the crunchy, syncopated rhythm guitar rolls in. White and co. ironically advise an ambiguous “you” (maybe the listener, maybe White himself, maybe America) not to dream or think, but to instead go along with the trends and expectations of suburbia. It’s an excellent opener for an album that never recaptures the same energy.
“Bored Rotten” (Worst Song): Penultimate track “Call It a Day” is boring to the point of annoyance. Brendan Benson takes the lead, delivering disinterested vocals across four dull verses that never take a second to breathe between them. When the fourth verse comes to a close, Benson circles back around and performs the first three verses again for some reason. This time, the second verse is mostly instrumental except for random outbursts of “my hand” and “you concocted this plan,” which makes no sense without the rest of the lyrics. By the time the song ends, we’re all hoping to call it a day.
“The Eyes Were Peeping” (Best Video): Floria Sigismondi, who previously directed The White Stripes’ “Blue Orchid” video, takes the helm again for “Broken Boy Soldier”. The surreal stop-motion adventure follows the titular doll through wooded forests and over sandy dunes as he puts his body back together. But just as soon as the boy soldier is made whole, a birthday boy again tears him to pieces, leaving the viewer with a sense of fatalistic vanity. In this video, as in other songs like “Over and Over and Over”, White expresses a belief that history is doomed to repeat itself. While things are always shifting, humanity never gets older.
“It Bears Repeating” (Best Lyric): “Your friends have shown a kink in the single life/ You’ve had too much to think, now you need a wife” — “Steady, As She Goes”
“Shut Up and Learn” (General Analysis): Broken Boy Soldiers represented Jack White’s first foray outside the garage punk/blues rock of The White Stripes and, as such, was welcomed by fans and critics as a show of versatility. As time has passed and we’ve seen the innovation and artistry White is capable of on later solo and side projects, The Raconteurs’ debut feels flat and uninspired. The album takes clearer inspiration from the late-’60s rock of The Beatles and The Doors than White’s rawer blues heroes. However, where The White Stripes’ music took care to emanate the grit and feeling of its influences, Broken Boy Soldiers is tired and mundane, much like the suburban life it decries on “Steady, As She Goes”.
14. The White Stripes – Get Behind Me Satan (2005)
Runtime: 44:07 (13 tracks)
“They’re Gonna Rip It Off”: When your previous album is a culmination of everything you’ve been working towards as a garage rock band, it’s time to break out the marimba. “Forever for Her (Is Over for Me)” has a classic White Stripes melancholy courtesy of contriteness from White (“I blew it, and if I knew what to do, then I’d do it”). The instrumentation shakeup sounds completely natural under White’s guidance, and if the song sounds low-key and low-stakes at first, you should be singing, “Let’s get on a plane and just do it” with total fervor by the time it’s over.
“Bored Rotten”: It feels cruel to pick on a song like “Little Ghost”, a short, country-fried number that shows the Stripes weren’t just making Elephant part deux. But even in its two-minute runtime, it’s the kind of song you get sick of before it’s even halfway done. White and bandmate Meg White sound more concerned with making something that sounds country than with something that has any kind of defining White Stripes characteristics. What they end with sounds like a tepid sketchbook idea that would’ve been better as a B-side or just not released at all.
“The Eyes Were Peeping”: There are lots of things to mourn about the end of The White Stripes, but the loss of new, Michel Gondry-directed videos is one of the greatest. “The Denial Twist” is delightful in its unpredictability, starting with a visit to the set of Stripes friend Conan O’Brien, looking a bit … off, and leading into some very skewered perspectives and neat tricks, including a great Monty Python tribute. This was the final video Gondry made with the Stripes, and it capped one of the best band/music video auteur team-ups ever.
“It Bears Repeating”: “A lot of people get confused, and they bruise real easy when it comes to love/ They start putting on their shoes and walking out and singing, ‘Boy, I think I had enough.’” — “The Denial Twist”
“Shut Up and Learn”: There are no White Stripes albums entirely without merit, and there are certainly no uninspired ones, but Get Behind Me Satan is one that needs some ironing out. A more acoustic, piano-based follow-up to Elephant could’ve been a worthy successor to that magnum opus, but Satan often feels patchy, with raging opener “Blue Orchid” leading into marimba-led “The Nurse” without much grace or sense. It’s great that the Stripes didn’t feel content to coast, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t come up with something more consistent than this.
13. The Dead Weather – Dodge and Burn (2015)
Runtime: 42:44 (12 tracks)
“They’re Gonna Rip It Off”: Comprised of Jack White, Alison Mosshart (The Kills), Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age), and Jack Lawrence (The Raconteurs, The Greenhornes), the supergroup known as The Dead Weather is a collection of kindred spirits. “Three Dollar Hat” offers an early glimpse into exactly what is going on with this record and group: it’s a cocktail of hard-rocking riffs, sporadic and eclectic rhythms, muddy blues, and shrieking punk. This track exhibits Mosshart’s shaky yelps, accompanied by a compressing riff and interrupted by White’s rambling and preaching — all together making it a slow burn that’s far more digestible than most of what’s concocted on this record.
“Bored Rotten”: Though the duet between Alison Mosshart and Jack White is so precise it’s nearly impossible to differentiate who is singing when, it’s on “Rough Detective” that you see the duo push one another to ridiculous extremes. Where the rest of the record’s theatrical elements tend to complement the tones of the songs and production, on “Rough Detective”, they seem to mostly agitate and murky up the overall flow and consistency of the record.
“The Eyes Were Peeping”: Directed by Sophie Muller and Ross McDowell, the video for “Impossible Winner” finds the four band members as paranormal side-show attractions who are cooped up and detained in cages on a boxcar. Mosshart is half-buried in dirt while White has extra limbs sprouting out of him. The boxcar, however, is lorded over by two black-dressed goons and a man whose whole face is just a howling mouth. When the passengers get to making too much noise, the trio start to rattle the cages and squawking at any opportunity to break out and rebel. It’s quirky, spooky, whimsy — nothing less than what you’d expect from the quartet.
“It Bears Repeating”: “My hand is faster than the pen, but the end has been written down/ Still the ink will not dry, undermined by a hope that I’m wrong/ Open up, Open up” — “Open Up”
“Shut Up and Learn”: Dodge and Burn attempts to cover so much ground within the span of 40 minutes that it ends up being a giant and sometimes obnoxious mess. The four strive to explore classic rock, alt rock, some post-punk — all within a faulty blues structure, with a bunch of other genres/styles peppered throughout with no real consistency. Individually, each member has their strengths, but this album seems to be more about each one of them attempting to one-up the other’s untamed disposition.
12. The Dead Weather – Horehound (2009)
Runtime: 43:55 (11 tracks)
“They’re Gonna Rip It Off”: Horehound’s best blues rock bangers could register high on the Scoville scale in terms of heat. “Treat Me Like Your Mother” has total matriarchal power from co-vocalist Alison Mosshart as she comments on what it means to be both a man and a woman. The rest of The Dead Weather’s performance, including a sticky synth motif from Queens of the Stone Age’s Dean Fertita, and White’s work behind the drum kit, along with his vocal chemistry with Mosshart, give this standout momentum until the very last second.
“Bored Rotten”: “I Cut Like a Buffalo” is flat cock rock delivered through a filter of slight vintage psych effects on White’s vocals. The quality difference between first two singles “Hang You from the Heavens” and “Treat Me Like Your Mother” and this is pretty noticeable. For someone just getting the hang of rock songwriting, it’s perfectly acceptable. For Jack White, in 2009, it doesn’t cut it.
“The Eyes Were Peeping”: The video for “Treat Me Like Your Mother” starts with an old-fashioned bomb going off, but for a while, the rest isn’t quite so on-the-nose. White and Mosshart, both clad in black, march towards each other, wielding military-grade weapons. If you know anything about introducing guns at the beginning of any sort of dramatic work, you know how this’ll turn out.
“It Bears Repeating”: Ah look me in the eye now/ You want to try to tell a lie?/ You can’t, you know why?/ I’m just like your mother.” — “Treat Me Like Your Mother”
“Shut Up and Learn”: White is synonymous with guitar, but he actually got his start drumming. Horehound isn’t a showcase for Jack White: Drum Maestro. He knows his way around a kit, but his performances here are far more about being felt than intellectualized. This pretty well sums up The Dead Weather’s debut album, which has an intriguing edge but less than unique songwriting. The darker tint helps lift what are otherwise pretty boilerplate blues rock songs, but once you get a hold of its vibe, there’s not a lot to set it apart. More tracks like haunting closer “Will There Be Enough Water” in the mix would help distinguish it more.
11. The Raconteurs – Help Us Stranger (2019)
Runtime: 41:15 (12 tracks)
“They’re Gonna Rip It Off”: White sings on Raconteurs albums, but he doesn’t hog the spotlight. His bandmate and fellow vocalist, Brendan Benson, contributes one of his best Raconteurs songs yet with the achingly honest and uplifting “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)”. It sounds like everything great about Big Star at once without sounding like a stale copy. The acoustic strums, layered vocals, and ending refrain of “I’m here right now/ I’m not dead yet” add up to a pick-me-up that understands if you need to stay close to the ground for the time being.
“Bored Rotten”: Boring conspiracy theory: White has been deliberately placing one definitive stinker in his last few albums so everything else looks good by comparison. The line between fun and dumb is occasionally blurred, but it’s clear as day with “Don’t Bother Me”, which sounds like Queen in a centrifuge, all so White can decry people for using smartphones and other affronts. Help Us Stranger isn’t such a brilliant album that this dud’s existence really smarts, but it didn’t deserve to be brought down to this level.
“The Eyes Were Peeping”: “Help Me Stranger” at first seems like it’ll just be a solid, but unremarkable video of a band playing in a room. While it does cut back to The Raconteurs in a practice space, it also fits in a story of White embracing an abandoned baby before it disappears into green vapor. The green motif is also present in the opening, when bassist Jack Lawrence sings like a crooner on a weathered 45 rpm single while a couple dances in total embrace, as well as phone booth conversations between White and Benson, and a zonked-out parting shot. It might not be easy being green, but it sure is fun for us to watch.
“It Bears Repeating”: “Who cares how people live, if living’s all they got?” — “Thoughts and Prayers”
“Shut Up and Learn”: Depending on how you view Greta Van Fleet, this is either a great or terrible time for classic rock revival. On their first album in over a decade, The Raconteurs take cues from their musical forebears without being plagiarists. Their sound is pretty flexible, and this album just sounds like some pals approximating their heroes as best they can. But when said pals are this talented, it’s still worth a listen.