Counterbalance No. 101: The White Stripes’ ‘Elephant’

The White Stripes

Klinger: It seems fitting somehow that we come out of the Great List’s top 100 albums of all time with a release from this century, and it makes sense that the 101st most acclaimed album of all time is from the White Stripes (especially since we’re almost out of Radiohead albums). Here’s why I say this: I’m of the opinion that, when the grand Ken Burns narrative of Rock ‘n’ Roll is written, Jack White might well be hailed as our last rock star. In this Web 2.0 age, it strikes me as highly unlikely that anyone else will be able to build up the sort of mystique that was his stock in trade as he and Meg were breaking big. Were they married? Were they siblings? Why all the red and white? Did he really only use steam-powered amps and quill pens to make his music? These questions would now all be shut down in a matter of hours with the access to social media that people have access to, but back then it led to a great deal of speculation.

And with Elephant, the duo’s fourth album, they finally broadened their musical palette just enough to render those kinds of questions superfluous. Given that the first song, “Seven Nation Army” begins with what sounds an awful lot like (but is not in fact) a bass guitar, you get the sense that the two are trying to shake off the shackles that they had been building up for the past few years.

Those little steps toward a bigger picture go on throughout the record, and the result is just the sort of breakthrough that the critics go nuts for. So, Mendelsohn, for someone like you, who came of age with the White Stripes, does the arrival of Elephant make as much sense to you?

Mendelsohn: I suppose it does. By your account, Elephant may be the last entry in the great rock ‘n’ roll canon, and might I add, this album also marks the death of the garage rock revival—a revival that lasted all of two short years. The Strokes kicked it off in 2001 with Is This It? and the White Stripes shut it down with Elephant.

Two years, Klinger, two very short years and in that time, and for a couple more years thereafter, the record industry managed to find and pump out a cadre of like-minded bands hoping for some sort of rock renaissance the likes of which we hadn’t seen since 1993 when every band in Seattle was given a record contract. And who is left standing as a semi-relevant force in the music world? Oddly enough, it is the Black Keys, the other bluesy garage rock duo that came up around that time. Who, I must say, I’ve always liked more than the White Stripes, if only for the fact that they eschewed the rock ‘n’ roll mystique that Jack White actively cultivated for a more blue-collar approach to music. Plus the Black Keys were more in the blues/classic rock vein while the White Stripes pushed a little too far toward punk and noise rock for my taste. But I digress, especially when you consider that the Great List has assigned the White Stripes the artist rank of 70, while the Black Keys are 1478 (not only does rate albums, but it also rates the artist—I love stats!).

I’m not really looking to make a point, other than trying to avoid saying that while I like the White Stripes, I don’t love the White Stripes. By the time Elephant hit, I was in my senior year of college and the cynicism of adulthood had fully set in and I couldn’t really appreciate the work Jack White had put into making the album such a worthy entry into the Great List. I’m still trying, just not very hard.

Klinger: Well, we’re out of the top 100, so you maybe don’t need to beat yourself up too much when you’re not connecting with an album. (Besides, you should still be beating yourself up for not loving Forever Changes.) And I think it’s great that you’re still trying. But the more I listen to Elephant, the more I recognize just what a unique statement it is—especially when you move beyond the self-mythologizing and so forth and focus on the music.

What I’m really hearing on Elephant is an attempt to draw early musical styles into a more current vernacular, something that had obviously long been a fascination for White. Not just blues, although that’s still very much a factor in songs like “Ball and Biscuit”, but also in the inclusion of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself”. Plus I think I’m detecting it in less tangible ways throughout the record—I can’t quite put my finger on it, but when I listen to Jack White sing I can’t help hearing some kind of crazy old-timey razzle-dazzle vaudevillian showmanism lurking in his voice. Then again maybe that’s just down to his ghostly pale complexion and penchant for pencil mustaches. But there you go, Mendelsohn—separating the music from the mystique is hard!

Mendelsohn: Are you being facetious, Klinger? Or are you just being self-congratulatory? I can never tell. By all accounts, I should be all over this record. As we move out of the Top 100, we are beginning encounter more records that I was around for their release and I remember how they impacted the music at the time. This record should have hit in the sweet spot for me. After thinking it over, I think I’ve figured out why I’m so resistant to just giving myself over to this album. Before Elephant hit, I had some cool friends who were always talking up the White Stripes, especially after the release of White Blood Cells. You know the type, they worked at record stores, wore funny clothes, and judged people for their poor taste in music. It was slightly annoying. Then Elephant hit and my not-so-cool friends were suddenly on board the White Stripes train. You know the type, they were well-adjusted socially, wore clothes that fit, and were judged for their poor taste in music. Now I was getting it from both sides and as much as I liked this album, I was really annoyed by how much everyone loved the record and wouldn’t stop talking about it. Although, I have to say, watching my cool friends scoff at my not-so-cool friends when they said something like, “I hear Jack and Meg White are siblings! I wish my sister rocked that hard” was really funny.

You are right about Jack White’s uncanny ability to connect the early musical styles to the modern world of rock. Having seen them live, I can attest to the fact that on stage, Jack is the reincarnation of the vaudeville showman. Just as he and Meg are able to fill an entire record with just two people, Jack took that art to the next level when he was playing live. And while these two could sound like an entire band all at once, they also understood the dynamic of the space, knowing exactly when to fill it and when to step back and let the music breathe. I think the best example of that talent, and by far my favorite White Stripes song, is “Ball and Biscuit”. At the drop of a hat, that song goes from sparse blues swing to full frontal assault and back again, and it is done with such aplomb and gusto that the extreme feedback and picked blues riff sound as natural as the wind blowing through the trees.

Klinger: And that’s where you and I once again part company, Mendelsohn. While you seem to gravitate toward the protracted blues-flavored quagmires, I tend to favor the short sharp shock. And Elephant has those in spades—that bit from “Little Acorns” through “Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine” is like a run through a sprinkler for me. I even don’t mind it when he lets (makes? It kind of sounds like makes.) Meg sing on “In the Cold, Cold Night”. And even though “Well It’s True That We Love Each Other” is a little too much of a rewrite of the Mamas and the Papas’ “Creeque Alley” for my tastes, I can’t begrudge them when they bring the bit of whimsy that’s always lurking under the surface of their music to the forefront.

Ultimately, I think that it’s that blending of styles from all points on the musical timeline that made the White Stripes such a phenomenon among the criticerati and that certain segment of the rock populace that’s naturally drawn to such things (call them the Mojo Nation, maybe?). To take in everything from blues and folk to Burt Bacharach and other forms of pre-rock croonery, cram it all into a classic Detroit garage rock template, and then decorate it all with trappings that reflect what appears to be genuine, shall we say, idiosyncrasy seems like the exact right path to take. In retrospect, it seems so simple. Except it turns out that only Jack and Meg actually thought to do it.