Ryan Adams has already said that Elephant is the greatest rock n roll album ever recorded (laying to rest, once and for all, his spat with “cissy boy” Jack White). Jack White himself – well, Jack White thinks this is where The White Stripes get off. Nobody is going to buy Elephant. Or rather: the hordes that bought White Blood Cells – Jack White thinks they’ll stay home this time. Or so he says.
Elephant kickstarts with a pristine bass sound. “7 Nation Army”. The first single to be. Whatever you say, however you approach this, you don’t expect bass. The White Stripes are guitars and drums. Guitars and drums and occasional piano. They make a primal noise. That is what they do. The bass is just foolin’, though (it’s not bass at all – it’s just an effect – it’s just gee-tar). Jack White is here with a voice fizzing like magnesium in water: “Everybody knows about it from the Queen of England to the hounds of hell”. Oh yeah. This is rock’n’roll, pure and simple, all you need to know. When that boy White sings “I’m going to Wichita . . .” you sure as shit want to be on the same train . . . He whistles and he whines and he roars and he spits – he is everything Black Francis was back in the day.
Next up is “Black Math” – you follow the Pixies’ thinking and “Black Math” is Elephant’s “Tame”. Fierce fierce rock with a screaming vocal about mothers and breaking backs against all-out reverb and noise. Plus you get Jack saying “ah-ah-ah-ah-ha” (the first of many such sounds drawn from a huge pantheon of rock’n’roll staples that look stupid written down and cool as all-Hell when sung – later you get “ow a-ha ow ow ow” in “Little Acorns”, “do-do-dodoobiedo” in “Air Near My Fingers” and “Whoo!” – a great barbaric yawp of primordial garage “Whoo!” – in “Girl You Have No Faith In Medicine” – all stupid written down, all cooler than Clint when sung by your man Jack White).
A nod to another Queen (Freddie Mercury) comes next – multipart vocals cluster about the cruelest chorus (“There’s no home for you here, girl, go away . . .”) while – and I shit you not – guitars and theramins all but haemorrhage. There is relief (albeit short-lived relief) in the familiar lilt of a cover – Bacharach and David’s “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself.” This isn’t Pop Idol though, and Jack White is no Gareth. When he wails “I need your sweet love . . .” – he means it (he’s camped outside your house with a sharp knife and a cold sweat). Meg’s vocal on “In The Cold Cold Night” seems to respond – yeah, she’s saying, you’re crazy as a cuckoo but . . . you know . . . I like it. Sounding like Sandy Shaw (“you make me feel a little older, like a full grown woman might . . .”), Meg says “I know that you feel it too / when my skin turns into glue . . .” Okay Meg, you say, taking one slow step after another toward the door . . .
Kitty Empire has already said (in The Observer 17/3/03) that the thing about Elephant (one of the things about Elephant) is Jack White has this ability (in the course of a line, of a song, of an album) to hit every button you could ever want, and many buttons you could hardly imagine and a few you’re willing to ignore.”I Want To Be The Boy” finds Jack getting maudlin over a girl: “What kind of cartwheels do I have to pull . . . / I’m inclined to go finish high school just to make notice that I’m around . . .”); “Ball & Biscuit” finds Jack redefining sex and rock’n’roll (in a way that just hasn’t been done since Prince sang “I Want To Be Your Girlfriend” – the only difference is that Jack doesn’t want to be your girlfriend . . . ): “It’s quite possible that I’m your third man, girl, but it’s a fact that I’m a seventh son . . .” he slurs lasciviously. “Let’s have a ball and a biscuit sugar and take our sweet time about it . . .” Oh yeah. On “Little Acorns”, he doesn’t give a shit (“Take all your problems, baby, and rip ’em apart . . . “), on “Hypnotise” (the closest thing here to a retread of “Fell in Love with a Girl” – but, man, what a retread) he’s intent, driven: “I want to hypnotise you baby on the telephone . . .”
The White Stripes are legend, already. They are legend and they know it – they nod to the past (“Girl You Have No Faith in Medicine” is like The Rolling Stones by way of Jonathan Fire Eater) but this is not The Strokes (despite the fact that Elephant was recorded using equipment that predates 1963). This is – to coin an overused phrase – now. The White Stripes are having the time of their life (listen to the last track, “It’s True That We Love Each Other”, a throwaway duet between Jack and Meg and Holly GoLightly: “I love Jack White like a little brother . . .” / “Well, Holly I love you too / but there’s just so much I don’t know about you . . .”) – they’re enjoying every second. The greatest rock’n’roll album ever recorded. C’mon. You can keep the hyperbole, Adams. But it’s pretty damn great all the same.