When the Raconteurs released their debut in 2006, co-founder Jack White was emerging from his imperial phase – the White Stripes would put out their final record the following year. The four-man side project initially seemed like a release valve for White, an outlet for the ideas the self-imposed strictures of the White Stripes had stymied. A decade on, however, and a Raconteurs reunion feels like the inverse: as White surfaces from a period of unfettered self-indulgence – three solo albums in and he’s well-established as an eccentric and largely irrelevant loose cannon – a new album provides an opportunity for some restraint.
As on the band’s debut, Help Us Stranger sees White’s wild-eyed, Led Zep-indebted riffs tempered by the blindingly sunny Beatles-y hooks of songwriting partner Brendan Benson – a terminally underappreciated maker of indie-pop. The mood board is limited to 1960s and 70s rock: there’s even a cover of Donovan’s Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness) reworked to accommodate the trademark squeal of White’s guitar. Opener Bored and Razed harnesses the ominous exuberance of classic rock to thrilling effect; Live a Lie channels beefy, adrenaline-triggering proto-punk; closer Thoughts and Prayers’ doleful, uncomplicated beauty is reminiscent of Winwood/Clapton supergroup Blind Faith.
It’s an exercise in nostalgia that rarely feels tedious or tired, perhaps because the style the band references is so unfashionable it borders on forgotten. There is, however, an unpleasant whiff of the era’s unreconstructed masculinity in the lyrics, which ring with barely contained aggression – from What’s Yours Is Mine’s furious order to “listen very closely cos I’m only going to say it twice” to toxic breakup song Now That You’re Gone (“Who’s gonna love you if it isn’t me?”).
The more pressing flaw is the album’s occasionally soupy quality: Help Me Stranger swirls with so many ideas that it’s impossible to physically hear everything that’s going on. The energy and exhilaration of the collaborative process might be palpable, but in its weaker moments Help Us Stranger sounds like the worst kind of compromise – cluttered, ill-defined and lacking the clarity of vision that once charged its driving forces.