#449: Elephant, The White Stripes
So excited to be talking about the White Stripes. I used to know this whole album by heart.
This record, recorded in two weeks with an eight-track tape machine and “various gear no more recent than 1963,” hit 2003 like a meteor. Jack & Meg White basically launched the garage/blues rock revival, and opened up my very small musical world (when I eventually discovered it five years later). It made me fall in love with the White Stripes AND the Black Keys — which is kind of hilarious, considering that Jack White historically hates the Black Keys. (Check out the e-mails he sent about how vehemently opposed he was to sending his children to the same school as Dan Auerbach’s kids, or the time he allegedly tried to FIGHT Patrick Carney.)
What can I say! Jack White is a wild, wild dude. His record company is technically named after his upholstery company, and apparently was accepted to the seminary. The weirdest thing he ever did, though, was claim that Meg White was his sister, when in reality she was his ex-wife. (Despite the assertions in “It’s True That We Love One Another,” she likely didn’t love Jack White like a little brother.) Sadly, it doesn’t sound like they really speak any longer.
And honestly, justice for Meg White. I’ve always been kind of aware that people criticized her drumming as being unschooled, but I think her rhythm had such character. And so does Questlove, by the way, who spoke out in her defense just this year after a journalist tweeted something rude about her skill. And for the record, Jack White defended her, too. (With a poem, because, of course.) But Meg rocks, and the song she sings on this record, “In The Cold, Cold Night,” is a striking poetic standout.
Still, Jack White is the showman here. The reason I fell in love with this record was because I had no idea that simple guitar riffs could sound so exciting: see “Black Math,” the short & dynamic “Hypnotize,” and the seven minute sex & drugs & rock & roll anthem “Ball and Biscuit.” And when he’s not shredding his guitar, he’s singing as dramatically as a scratchy-voiced bluesman can. See the AAAAAAH on “There’s No Home For You Here” and his attempt at falsetto on “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself,” which sounds like a song falling apart in midair.
I think a big advantage Jack White’s version of the blues has over the traditional blues is his willingness to tackle a wide variety of non-bluesy topics. He sings about being drowned out in a big family (“The Hardest Button to Button”), Norman Bates (“The Air Near My Fingers”), and the placebo effect (“Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine”). And when he sings about love, he stays away from flowers and syrupy metaphors. The only real ballad here is “I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart,” but the darkest & simplest song is “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket,” about a man’s attempt to manipulate a woman into his arms. It’s the only one without Meg, too, which feels right.
And, of course, there’s “Seven Nation Army,” the song with a riff that was just MADE to ring through fired-up sports arenas. (To be honest, the last time I heard this riff was at a Phillies game, so right now it’s kind of making me sad. PHILS PHOREVER.) The weirdest part? Jack White said that he contemplated saving it for a Bond theme. (Probably would have made a better Bond theme than the one he did with Alicia Keys.) This song is so ubiquitous at this point that there’s nothing I could say about it that hasn’t already been said. If that isn’t the pinnacle of success, I don’t know what is.
For what it’s worth, Icky Thump is still my favorite White Stripes record. Also I really loved his solo record, Blunderbuss, which I still feel was underrated — “Love Interruption” is a hidden masterpiece. But neither of them made the Top 500 cut, so let’s all bid Jack White a fond farewell.
Wildest Song: “Little Acorns,” which opens with a morality monologue from Mort Crim, a former Detroit-based broadcast journalist. Jack White actually built the song around that monologue. He’s a mad genius.