The Raconteurs: Help Us Stranger review – In perfect harmony and hardness
Help us Stranger
There are surely hundreds of musicians – landlocked and lawyered-up in bands – that look at Jack White and wonder how he has managed to do exactly what he has wanted for such a long time.
White, you might recall, split up White Stripes in 2011, leaving behind a legacy of six albums that for a new and younger generation renegotiated a fiery, authentic blend of garage rock, blues, punk and traditional country music.
He subsequently chased lightning in a variety of guises: solo albums (three so far), production work (from Loretta Lynn to Wanda Jackson), setting up his back-to-basics Third Man studios, collaborations (from Beyoncé to Beck) and other rock bands.
Those bands have included The Dead Weather and The Raconteurs, yet it is with the latter that White seems most creatively at home – presumably due to the collaborative presence of fellow Michigan native and equally adept songwriter Brendan Benson.
While White’s solo albums vary, sometimes wildly, in style, and his work with The Dead Weather is often weighed down with sludge-like blues/psych/rock hybrids, in slinging his hook with The Raconteurs he comes across as more grounded and satisfied.
With the exception of one cover version, The Raconteurs’ third album is a White/Benson joint, with a little help from their patient, loyal colleagues Patrick Keeler and Jack Lawrence.
Following slowly on the heels of 2008’s Consolers of the Lonely, the new album doesn’t necessarily pick up the pieces, and while you might regard the group as, nominally, an egalitarian unit, there remains a nagging sense that White isn’t about to accede total control to anyone.
This said, Benson’s company is surely a leveller. With six solo albums to his credit (a seventh will be released later this year), his pop music proficiency acts as a necessary balance to White’s occasional heavy-handed tendencies.
Such a mix of harmony and hardness is the start and end point of Help Us Stranger, but what really lifts the album out of the all-too-obvious blokes-in-a-band scenario is the way quite a few tracks find the two primary protagonists swap personas. Live a Lie, for example, arrives at a no-speed-limit intersection of New York Dolls and The Stooges; you might expect this to be right up White’s street, yet it is delivered by Benson, who sounds simultaneously terrified and animated. Likewise, Shine the Light on Me – a holdover song from White’s 2018 solo album, Boarding House Reach – presents a blend of piano-driven Queen harmonies and balladic Beatles pop that is straight out of Benson’s songbook. And so it goes on, the differences between White and Benson exhibiting solidarity rather than resistance.
Some tracks don’t always have the courage of their mutually creative convictions. Don’t Bother Me borders too close on a metal dirge; What’s Yours Is Mine is a throwback to White’s erratic hip-hop moves on Boarding House Reach; the cover of Donovan’s Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness) makes little sense for inclusion on such a songwriter-laden album.
These, however, are minor issues when the album as a whole is weighed up. Along with the aforementioned high points, the strength of songs such as Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying), Now That You’re Gone, and, especially, Thoughts and Prayers – which sees White tug a dignified forelock in the directions of not only Led Zeppelin but also bluegrass – tell a tale of how opposites can work together for the benefit of all concerned.
Within the ranks of The Raconteurs, it seems, democracy ultimately rules – clearly and sometimes very loudly.