It’s no real secret that the White Stripes are a monster live act, making it a bit perplexing why until 2010 a proper live album has eluded their discography. Considering that the reigning King and Queen of Garage Rock have hardly slackened to catch their breath since arriving on the music scene in the late ’90s — churning out new releases every one or two years without exception and regularly perching atop critics’ year-end best-of lists — it may simply be that the time hadn’t made itself opportune to properly put their arena-burning credentials into context. Following Meg White’s retreat from the public eye due to a recurring bout with acute anxiety, and with Jack White spinning off more side projects than you can shake a stick at (including two chart-storming indie rock supernovas, pushing his record label Third Man Records into accelerated gear, as well as several producing gigs), the stretch from 2007’s Icky Thump to 2010 has been the longest span of time that the public has gone without a studio album from the Detroit duo.
With that absence of any impending studio output forthcoming, as the band announced their decision to trek cross-country with our northern neighbors in Canada in celebration of their 10th anniversary — documenting both audio and video footage for a live record and a film, respectively — it seemed a perfect time to pause and reflect on the most consistently rewarding band of the past decade. Using their post-millennial albums as a foundation for the show while briefly trickling in several gems from their earlier, straight-from-the-garage records, the White Stripes display with visceral energy that it’s entirely possible for a group to maintain their signature sound and character without regression or stagnation. In a way, as great as those first two albums were, it’s better that they concentrate on their material from White Blood Cells forward, as this is what the band’s legacy has been built on.
While, for most intents and purposes, Jack and Meg have preserved what’s made them so special and endearing to their fans for the past 10 years — retaining complete creative control over their music and refusing to spit-polish or streamline their recording techniques or songwriting for a gradually increasing audience — it’s all the more admirable (and provides less griping room for cynics) that they’ve managed to ascend to such a lofty, prominent commercial position. By expanding their emotional palette and the tones that infuse them with distinct, individual motifs and instrumental approaches for each record they release while remaining as raunchy and big-hearted as ever, the White Stripes have found a way to have their cake and eat it too without sacrificing a whit of integrity along the way. This is brought into bold, untainted focus on Under Great White Northern Lights, as Jack and Meg indulge the starry-eyed crowd with spellbinding brawn and brains, tying together each step they’ve taken thus far into a coherent portrait of a constantly fascinating career of peaks.
Bookending the recording with wheezing bagpipes that recall the Scottish/Celtic themes that permeate Icky Thump, the White Stripes propel head-first into a scorching, fire-breathing “Let’s Shake Hands” that sets the breathless pace for the rest of the night. Hauling out the highlights from that 2007 release, the band twitches through a spastic rendition of “Little Ghost” before barreling through the dinosaur stomp of “Blue Orchid”, while touching on four more cuts later on from the healthily represented disc. On a bonecrushing, breakneck “Black Math”, Jack howls out the cautionary questions at hand while Meg keeps a steady, beating pulse beneath his command. “The Union Forever” appears in a particularly ravaging, madcap recitation, all throaty desperation and embittered revocation. The band bowls over the stadium by taking the frenetic buzzsaw blast of “Fell in Love with a Girl” and twisting it into a crawling, bluesy shuffle, bolstered with great encouragement by a hand-clapping, finger-snapping audience. On a thudding, uproarious finale, we’re treated with a bloodletting, propulsive rendition of the bruising, searing “Seven Nation Army”, played with raining veracity and to the absolute brink by a consummated, triumphant Jack and Meg. A pleasant victory lap from any other band; a complete barn-burner from the White Stripes, as could only be expected from these two modern marvels of rock and roll.
As fans await the next studio album from the swaggering, garage-hailing twosome, Under Great White Northern Lights feels like an appropriate recap of the unprecedented path the White Stripes have blazed over the past decade. For as long as the lack of a proper live release has created a hole in their otherwise peerless catalog, the delayed appearance of this record was well worth the wait and is an inarguably deserving crown on the superlative career-thus-far of Jack and Meg. If you’ve regrettably missed out on the band’s raging, unrivaled live show, this set does the volume-cranking, sweltering intensity they create some overdue justice. As a stand-alone release, it’s impressive; as a document and celebration of the greatest band of 21st century (sorry, Radiohead), it’s imperative.