Welcome back, Jack.
There was almost a point, deep into Elephant, where you could sense something slipping away from Jack White. Not that The Whites Stripes’ fourth album didn’t impress, its hefty stomp and regal prowl evoking its animal namesake. On the surface, Elephant was perfect, down to the dust-to-digital production of Toerag’s Liam Watson. But there was an eerie emptiness at play, the blood splattered in Meg‘n‘Jack’s sibling scraps washed clean off the walls. Too little dysfunction.
Elephant sounded like The White Stripes making a White Stripes record, or at least what Q magazine et al, their newfound champions, defined as a White Stripes record. Classicism in the Zep/Beatles lineage was the order of the day, a studied retroism, tongue-in-cheek lyrical playfulness. What was missing, though, was the spook, the voodoo that fires Jack White into howling like a love-stung angel when he nears the mic. What made Die Stihl so refreshing, back in 2001, was not its ragged traditionalism, its craftsmanship, but rather the fervour with which Jack invested and infected these forms, a righteous fire that burned away years of studied cool and critical baggage and canonical familiarity, scorching to the very soul of a music re-awakened in their hands.
Seemingly using the ornery hide of Elephant to shield himself through the media shit-storm of what was surely the peak of White Stripes-mania, Get Behind Me Satan finds Jack throwing off the covers and revealing himself to be vulnerable and confused and, possibly, heart-broken. It’s the same Jack who tears into Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ with not an iota of irony, just cutting deep to the bitter emotional bite of that song. And few can essay heartbreak with the brittle, cutting wit of a sulking Jack - as Jason Von Bondie learnt to his cost, White can be savage when cornered.
It opens with the single, ’Blue Orchid’, Jack’n’Meg pouring their jackhammer funk into a glitter ball-glancing, Glam-drenched disco-stomp that echoes similar noises ground out by DFA1979. For the record, Jack sounds like Emotional Rescue-era Jagger here, but not a bit as jaded. So far so (quality) indie disco. But track two, ‘The Nurse’, is where the fog creeps in, and things take a turn for the darker. Absent is Jacks plastic Sears guitar, replaced - as in much of the album - by piano and vibraphone. Until, that is, a most uncouth blast of distortion-hazed noise tears through, like a drunken, unwelcome visiting hoisting a brick through your window past the midnight hour. Clumsy and messy, like a hopelessly breaking heart, it intrudes on the track several times, arhythmically and with little artfulness, until it collapses into a barrage of bursts, like a corpse’s final flail. The result is to be left on edge, unsettled. Creeped thee fuck out.
What follows includes ‘Doorbell’, so naggingly catchy it could well be White Stripes’ own ‘Crazy Frog’ (there’s gold in them thar ringtones); the deliciously Big Star lament ‘Forever For Her (Is Over For Me)’; ‘As Ugly As I Seem’ painting the word ‘regret’ in gently Byrdsian tones; ‘The Denial Twist’, like Beck jamming with The Electric Mayhem; and the sick gothic country of ‘White Moon’. Then and only then do we commence …Satan…’s third, and darkest, side.
‘Instinct Blues’ is everything Elephant‘s ‘Ball & Biscuit’ should’ve been: bone lean and acid-fried blues, agitated by animal lust, and speared by atonal guitar freakouts and walls of frustrated din. There follows a bizarre and impenetrable nursery rhyme from Meg, a sorbet before ‘Take Take Take’, a truly startling song that bolts a tumbleweed strum to a heavy piano chorus, booming like something off a Morricone score, Meg thumping tympani with elan as Jack ponders the vampirish qualities of fame (the celeb in question being Rita Hayworth - good taste, Jack). Call the lyric Jack’s ‘International Jetset’, though the music itself, a grandiose tantrum, is more Dylan than dub, but a new beast all its own.
‘Little Ghost’, a morbid dustbowl ditty, is another brief segue, before perhaps Jack’s grisliest, most viciously odd song to date, and possibly his best. Slide guitar picks out an eerie melody, accompanied by toy piano and weary falsetto, tumbling into a brutal duel between Jack’s roaring guitar, slashing out a twisted-razor-wire blues, and his increasingly-unhinged vocal, like an insane preacher swollen with the spirit. Messy, eerie, chilling, it’s a murder ballad with evil seeped into its core, the lonely, desperate, snarling darkness of the blues.
‘I Ain’t That Lonely Yet’ is as sweet a closer as you could hope for, a fragile, gospel-infused note of hopefulness that somehow quells all the bared-fangs and broken hearts it follows. But the jagged edges are what you’ll remember and return to. Jack’s mastery of rock’n’roll was never in question but, as he sits and ploughs diesel-soaked Buicks of riff into moments of folk-hewed vulnerability, like a naughty boy attacking his sister’s teddy bears with a fearsome toy dinosaur, his ability to play out his heartaches, his inner dramas in such a flamboyant but still resonant manner, is confirmed.(c) 2005, Stevie Chick