They may have been going for years beforehand but it was in 2001 that weirdo-duo The White Stripes became known to the world, arriving in fine feral style with their supercharged brand of primeval punk blues. They were hyped to the max with their red and white uniforms and carefully contrived sister/brother/lover cartoon mystery but White Blood Cells was a seriously impressive piece of work, far more than the sum of its excess publicity.
There was something genuinely unsettling and odd about this pair, a distinct whiff of Deliverance despite them hailing from the decidedly non-hillbilly Detroit. The songs weren’t bad either. “Fell In Love With A Girl” had one of those unstoppable riffs that make you fall in love with rock’n’roll all over again.
After years of nu-metal gleck and turgid indie-schmindie here were serious contenders for one of those bands that actually end up meaning something, or at least coming close.
Two years later came Elephant, and as Peter Wild’s review on Spike rightly showed, this was a work that built on the foundations of White Blood Cells into a still more towering aural edifice. “Seven Nation Army” thundered more darkly and triumphantly than anything on the previous album; while “Black Math” competed with even “.Fell In Love” for jagged thrash brilliance. There were less wasted songs on the latter album than the former, and Jack White’s strangulated yelping in tongues could still beguile.
And yet, and yet. In the end I spent less time with Elephant than on White Blood Cells. Bad first impressions usually come back, like the slight irritation at the whole contrivance, the doubts about the vague impression left by the lyrics. They’d made their imprint. It was a good album, something to come back to from time to time without doubt, but this was not a Great Pop Moment and these weren’t one of the Great Rock Bands. So is Get Behind Me Satan enough to relight the spark?
Elephant‘s big gimmick was its avowed primitivism; no instruments from after 1960. This rule is shunned many times on Satan with distortion effects dotted here and there to erratic but sometimes inspired effect. Furthermore the electric guitar is often not the main instrument at work here, and the tone and pace is markedly slower, with a higher ballad to thrash-out ratio than either of the former two works. There is more of a return to the experimentalism and avant edges of Blood Cells as against the 2003 album’s direct approach too (including one; “Little Ghost”, which is pure bluegrass.)
As ever they’ve got a star performing single to herald the album, and as with the former two it storms like a rabid beast. “Blue Orchid” shows Jack can still pull out a riff that bowls you over with its rampant dirty simplicity.
And as ever, there are some very fine moments throughout the album. “The Doorbell” is decidedly funky, not a word I’d thought of in association with the pair before. “Passive Manipulation” brings another rare vocal performance from Meg, and while her vocals have been decried as “one-note” as her drumming, I find her untutored tones basely alluring. Sphinxy. The regular lovelorn longing on Jack’s ballads often hits the sad-spot too, dwelling even more than usual on themes of loss and betrayal. Yet at as the album progresses some of the longer work-outs meander too long, and to too little effect.
The subtler pace makes for a lack of distraction from another nagging doubt I had in the first place about the whole charade here, namely the Led Zep rawk tendencies which were always there both in Jack’s voice and his guitar. Not a bad thing to many I’m sure; but to me anything that smells even faintly of the mid-70s and leather trousers is somehow profoundly wrong. It’s an initial disability comparable to a severe lisp for me, and the invention here isn’t quite strong enough to mask it.
This is a good album from a still solid talent. Those without my acute Page/Plantophobia may rate it higher still, particularly with the very real and laudable innovations to their old sound the Whites are making here. But for me, it is final proof that they are one of the best of the rest, not one of the all time players.