Hemmed in by all those self-imposed rules, forever railing against a world that’s forgotten decency, romance, and the purifying wonders of the blues, Jack White never had the look of someone for whom life was a matter of instinctive fun. Lately, however, there have been signs of a loosening up, perhaps thanks to marriage (to the English model Karen Elson) and imminent fatherhood. Whatever the case, the Raconteurs are soaked in a very uncharacteristic sense of rock as primal enjoyment. White has also turned 30, the age when so many uptight young men begin to stop worrying about what people might think and learn the art of Doing It Anyway.
Over 34 incisive minutes, the Raconteurs — White and his longstanding Detroit compadre Brendan Benson, plus drummer Patrick Keeler and bassist Jack Lawrence from Cincinnati garage rockers the Greenhornes — take a joyous sprint through the parts of their record collections devoted to the late ’60s and early ’70s, referencing the Who circa Tommy, early Led Zeppelin, and the English bluesrock quartet Free. There’s also a dash of the ornate musical form once known as progressive rock, not least in keyboard passages that cry out for cringe-inducing words like arpeggio. The mischievous approach often aims at the liberating sensation of being so out that you’re in. “This ringing in my ears won’t stop / I’ve got a red Japanese teapot,” go the goofy lyrics of “Intimate Secretary,” which playfully reenacts the moment when the residue of psychedelia met the beginnings of heavy metal.
If all of that suggests an album in thrall to a kind of postmodern camp, the Raconteurs are also a band with a singular identity. As proved by the leadoff single, “Steady, as She Goes,” White and Benson’s essential sound is yowling grit crossed with cooing sweetness. The fusion works not only on songs split between the two of them, but also when they do their own thing. On the title track, White’s piercing yelp and the music’s Eastern overtones follow Led Zep into a dark sense of derangement, while the Benson vehicle, “Together,” is bucolic good-vibery incarnate. It’s a case of yin and yang, or Lennon and McCartney — the kind of meld from which so much brilliant rock music has been made.
Naturally, the wonderment occasionally stalls. “Store Bought Bones” has a great title, but its crazily layered music is a little too clever for its own good; on “Call It a Day,” Benson’s fondness for pared-down balladry teeters close to soporific dullness. But in the end, the glitches fade, and we’re left with the cool sound of hot days, fragrant smoke, and FM radio at earsplitting volume. In this glorious corner of the world, it might just be 1969 forever.