In the movie The Third Man, the protagonist spends half the film searching for an old friend, a character the audience knows is played by Orson Welles. Throughout his career, Welles had dominated every film he appeared in with his larger than life stature and acting chops. But in The Third Man, he can’t dominate because he’s not there. When he finally appears, it’s only because someone off-screen turns on a light.
When The Third Man was released in 1949, it was a huge gamble. Welles was clearly the star that the audience had come to see. However, his absence actually makes the film better. The main character’s sense of loss and desperation is palpable, since the audience wonders where Welles could be as well. Once he is revealed, the audience hangs on his every word, wondering what he will do next.
While listening to The Raconteurs’ newest album, Consolers of the Lonely, I immediately thought of Welles. Like Welles, Jack White has a dominating personality that draws attention to every thing he does. Since the The White Stripes is essentially all about that personality, the band’s music can be a little overwhelming. It’s all White all of the time.
The Raconteurs are very different than White’s normal band, though, because he strategically cedes the spotlight. The most interesting songs on the new album are the ones where Brendan Benson sings lead, and White mostly disappears. Suddenly, even the smallest contribution — a backing vocal here, a guitar solo there — becomes a big deal.
In the song “Old Enough,” Benson listlessly delivers the first few lines. “You look pretty in your fancy dress, but I detect unhappiness,” he coos, and it seems that this will be some kind of sappy song about doomed rich girls. Then White enters and completely changes the tone.
I was naive just like you
I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do
Well, what you gonna do?
This is essentially the yin-and-yang, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde aspect that makes The Raconteurs rise above the common supergroup. Benson is the good side, a tender lover who tries as hard as he can to protect the weak. White is animalistic and realistic. He asks for a lot in a lover, and will assert his authority where it’s necessary. He knows weakness is not a virtue.
Consider “Top Yourself,” in which White basically reads a lover the Riot Act.
How you gonna stop yourself
When your man stops ringing your bell
You’re right between Heaven and Hell
And your gonna need the good lord to help you
How am I gonna make you see
That this ain’t no way to be
See you’ve been gettin’ it all for free
Guess you better get yourself a sugar daddy to help you
This song has parallels (albeit unintended) to Welles in Citizen Kane, and Kane’s relationship with his second wife Susan. He gives Susan everything she could ask for, and figures that materialism is enough. When Susan tells him she’s leaving, he turns it around and tries to make it look as if things are her fault. When he finally loses his temper and hits her, he’s still in denial about everything.
SUSAN: You – you hit me.
(Kane continues to look at her)
SUSAN: You’ll never have another chance to hit me again.
SUSAN: Never knew till this minute–
KANE: Susan, it seems to me–
SUSAN: Don’t tell me you’re sorry.
KANE: I’m not sorry.
SUSAN: I’m going to leave you.
KANE: No, you’re not.
Even in a moment of weakness, Kane is unwilling to apologize. Instead, he tries to assert his authority one more time. Like White, his tone is domineering and condescending.
Admittedly, comparisons between Welles and White are nothing new. In fact, White regularly invites them. He has often professed his love of Welles. His record label is named Third Man Records. He even recorded a song (“The Union Forever”) that’s essentially a medley of songs and dialogue from Citizen Kane.
As even White accepts the comparison, let’s further examine the two. Welles was a boy genius who did most of his lasting work before he was 40, then became increasingly mercurial (and overweight) with age. White is now 33 (his birthday was Wednesday, actually), and thus coming closer and closer to the age where Welles slowly began to lose relevance.
Many would already say that White’s best years are behind him. The last few White Stripes albums have proven that he’s incapable of changing his basic sound outside of adding some obscure instruments. Even his mystique has mostly gone – no one really cares about his relation to Meg now that he’s married.
So, here’s the simple question: Where do you see White in 20 years? Will he become obese? Start releasing fewer and fewer albums? Make commercials for frozen peas? Or is he talented enough to still be relevant years from now?