What separates the blues greats from the legends? A good story. And Jack White knows how to tell one. (Did you hear the one about the guitarist who married his sister?) It's no coincidence that his side band is called the Raconteurs: "When you call yourself a musician," the White Stripes leader said when he teamed up with singer-songwriter Brendan Benson, bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler in 2005, "you join that family of storytellers."
He's found the right clan. Consolers of the Lonely comes together like a blissfully stoned conversation between White and Benson about their favorite bands: Led Zeppelin, the Who, Badfinger. Each of them riffs off the other, trading verses and guitar leads on a host of compelling stories: a classic Western (the Ennio Morricone sendup "The Switch and the Spur"), a feel-good biblical allegory (the folk hymn "These Stones Will Shout"), a revenge saga (the slow-burning epic "Carolina Drama"). White channels Benson when he coos harmonies on the piano-led "Pull This Blanket Off." Benson channels White when he growls on the gritty, garage-inspired "Salute Your Solution." And their styles merge completely on "Consolers of the Lonely," which doles out every possible exclamation point: explosive guitars, abrupt tempo changes, a floorboard-rumbling rhythm section and a climax where the whole band starts laughing. That song's title (and the album's) comes from an inscription on a post office building in Washington, D.C.: "Messenger of sympathy and love, servant of parted friends, consoler of the lonely, bond of the scattered family, enlarger of the common life." If that's a mailman's job — to connect people — then that's what these songs are aiming to do too.
This two-party system of songwriting didn't work as well on Broken Boy Soldiers. In order not to overshadow Benson, White almost rendered himself anonymous, abandoning his three-chord limit and letting himself get caught up in Benson's warm, layered melodies. As a result, the Raconteurs became the first side project in history that actually sounded less arty than the main band. But Consolers of the Lonely makes room for White's big personality. That's a good thing, because for all of Benson's strengths (bright guitar melodies, great taste in bandmates), personality is not one of them. The raw guitar ache of "Five on the Five" and the mariachi horns of "The Switch and the Spur" compete with the best of Icky Thump, even though Benson sings the "The Switch." The swaggering soul of "Many Shades of Black" is pure Benson, but White's vocals add the edge it needs to keep you from comparing it to Aerosmith's "Crazy." Sometimes it's hard to tell where White's vocals end and Benson's begin. They sound more like an old married couple than Jack and Meg do.
Benson shares White's obsession with freedom and control. No less than three songs — "Hold Up," "The Switch and the Spur" and "Attention" — mention prison or being under lock and key, and the First Amendment even pops up on "These Stones Will Shout" and the country-folk ditty "Old Enough." (On the latter, Benson warns, "You don't speak, so I have to guess you're not free" — you hear that, Meg?) Strange, because musically they're running wild. Guitars jerk from stripped-down intros to busting riots, choruses swell with arena-rock bombast, and White's there yelping happily the whole way through.
That freedom is not always satisfying: Overall, Consolers feels less like a project and more like a jam session. But it's fun to watch White make things up as he goes along. On the album highlight, "Carolina Drama," he sings a Dylanesque legend of a boy named Billy, who has a vendetta against his mom's boyfriend. The music builds from an ominous campfire song to a swirl of strings and ghostly la-la-las as White leads everything to its bloody conclusion: Billy kills the boyfriend with a milk bottle. But nothing is resolved — we finish with a mess of unexplained details (who is that milkman who delivered the bottle?).
Don't bother complaining — White warns you at the beginning that he's not going to wrap anything up. "I'm not sure that there's a point to the story/But I'm going to tell it again," he sings. "So many other people try to tell the tale/Not one of them knows the end." Guess the point of the story is the telling.