Morgan Enos is a musician, essayist and music journalist specializing in classic rock. He records and performs as Other Houses and has bylines in Billboard, HuffPost, the Recording Academy, Vinyl Me, Please, TIDAL and more. He is also the co-founder and editor of North of the Internet, a series of conversations with creative people. He can be found at his website.
The Raconteurs just returned with a new album, Help Us Stranger, after 11 years in silence. When I discovered the band, I was a naïve, bushy-haired 16-year-old cranking a Peavey combo amp in the family garage. 11 years later, I found myself on the phone with their frontmen, Jack White and Brendan Benson, while on my honeymoon at a New Orleans Airbnb (I had a glass of white wine in my hand; Chopped Junior was on mute).
I loved the band in high school, but since then, I hadn’t kept up with their various projects, or even the general sphere of music they inhabit. But last month, I had the opportunity to interview them on that sofa, for the Recording Academy website. I have had a universe of musical experiences while they’ve been gone. After the phoner, I put on my headphones and walked into the swampy afternoon. I’d listened to Help Us Stranger as research for the piece. I wanted to listen again.
During those 11 years, I’ve transitioned from being a gawky music fan to a “band guy” to a writer for Billboard, the Grammys, and more. My tastes have wildly swung every which way. But sometime in my early 20s, I developed a taste for music written and recorded in extreme situations, created on the brink of sanity and good sense. Skip Spence’s ghostly Oar. Big Star’s beautiful, hysterical Third/Sister Lovers. 13th Floor Elevators’ hypnotic first album.
That first one was recorded after the artist nearly murdered his band with a fire axe. The second was made with half the band replaced by a mountain of quaaludes. For the third, their leader commanded the entire band to drop LSD every time they picked up their instruments, until the band collapsed entirely. For so long, all of this sounded cool to me. Fun and games, right? Life in the service of art!
I still treasure all those albums, and I’m glad they were made, but I’m not titillated by their origin stories anymore. Now, I’m 27. I’m married. I just bought a house. That’s why Help Us Stranger clicks with me right now. It sounds like it was made by people who enjoy being alive. No one’s waiting to give you an award for living like Alex Chilton. I’ve got something to lose now. Why not chill out and enjoy making art?
I’m not talking about making toothless, unchallenging work; I’m not evoking giving up and grilling in khakis to Top 40. Being happy doesn’t mean your art has to be wimpy; Help Us Stranger’s best songs, like “Bored and Razed,” “Don’t Bother Me” and “Sunday Driver,” are edgy, aggressive and bluesy. They’re making a lot of noise, but they sound like they’re having a blast. Best of all, they earned it.
The Raconteurs’ members have worked in extremes before, with White’s berserk, short-circuiting Boarding House Reach, and Benson’s fussy 1960s pastiche One Mississippi. Now, there’s nothing to prove. This is music made in T-shirts and jeans. These guys aren’t losing their minds at a mixing board; they’re enjoying making music together. They’re not creating out of mania, nor for crass social acceptance. With time and experience, I’ve learned that real rock & roll is allergic to those things.
I’m writing this with my ears ringing from a Raconteurs show at Coney Island Baby, a little 200-capacity bar in the East Village. The rawness, and the volume, really struck me coming from a headliner. Songs nearly fell apart and snapped back into shape. They walked off, all smiles, with feedback ablaze. I’d spent a lot of years thinking this style — 2000s garage rock — was a little dated, or that I was over it. I’ll never let that weird attitude walk again. That was fun.
Clearly, this wasn’t meant to be a “cool” statement, or an attempt to reinvent the wheel artistically. They plugged in and played for a handful of their diehard fans, full stop. (One NYU student in the front was just about beside himself.) For the Raconteurs, rock & roll is a joyful activity, not a needlessly self-flagellating one. Because of this, they’ll get to do it a thousand more times, which is really what it’s all about anyway. Art in the service of life.