Much like this year’s Neon Bible, the polarizing Get Behind Me Satan was a record I just couldn’t wait for and ended up really liking. Both were solid, more-than-listenable pieces of work from artists I really loved, and they each had songs I absolutely loved and considered among the best of their respective oeuvres, from the aching swell of the dirgelike “My Body Is a Cage” to the sublime piano groove of “The Denial Twist”. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, both were somehow largely disappointing. Let me get this straight — with different names on their jewel case spines, with blank slates and devoid of expectations, these would be really exciting records, these would make their new names ones to watch for.
But Neon Bible just didn’t stir the spirit like the Arcade Fire’s stellar Funeral, and the White Stripes’s most recent at the time just felt off. It was incredibly written, yes, it pounded and it grooved and it swooned into ballads, but even as it pulled the Stripes’s sound in exciting new directions — more piano! more drama! any marimba! — these felt like undeveloped sidesteps more than real progression, change more than concrete growth. And they didn’t pound like they had in their little rooms, they didn’t groove like they had with balls and biscuits, they didn’t swoon like when you had her in your pocket.
With the legions of White Stripes devotees now split between hardcore loyalists ruing the day Jack switched from absolute minimalism to mere minimalism and marimba-happy progressives ruing Jack’s subversion of his wild-eyed energy to actress-worshipping theatrics (everybody was still pretty cool with Meg), the yet-again hotly-anticipated Icky Thump had essentially two options: to say “screw everybody”, pick a sound and run with it, or to screw with everybody and attempt to strike a balance. While the world considered which it preferred, the White Stripes then decided to attempt the impossible and do both, building an album that is both a cohesive whole, with perhaps the most unique sound they’ve rocked to date, and a logical progression and synthesis of all of their past styles, apparently hoping that everyone would be too busy getting fucked to even notice they were being fucked with. Summary: whatever particular aspects of the band you liked before, they’re back on Icky Thump and sounding as good as or better than before. Summary of the summary: Icky Thump rocks.
Let’s start with the worst songs. They’re competent for the White Stripes, meaning that they are actually pretty great and, while they would be highlights on many other rock bands’ records, here they don’t stand out but also fail to disappoint simply by being good enough that they don’t let the mood slack off between the best songs. And they’re memorable. Worst songs here, you guys win this round.
We can move on from here to the really unique, unprecedented, totally avant-garde tracks on the album or the straight-up blessed requisite standouts that already feel like musts for any cursory White Stripes mixtape. We should probably start with “Icky Thump”, because that’s the one song here that anyone interested has probably already heard and because it fits neatly into both categories.
“Icky Thump” is one of those songs that defies understanding or analysis for me, at least at this point, and becomes important only on the critical level that if you play it as loud as you can on your meanest-sounding speakers, you will feel like an incredibly bitch-ass specimen and people will fear you. From the seemingly-random opening buzz that really shouldn’t be catchy but is to the thick guitar punctuation, “Icky Thump” is all about the driving drum and guitar pulse that grounds the groove while incredibly elaborate and wicked solos pull it in every direction. Remember the solo from “Seven Nation Army”, that part where they ripped it all screechy and it sounded like a murder and you just knew, that once, what evil sounded like? That wicked. Then there’s Jack White with his most energetic yelps so far about something political and a signature little White Stripes guitar riff in there breaking up the pulsing sections; it’s sick in mood, in tone, and in execution, and it’s utterly wonderful.
THE WHITE STRIPES [Photo: Autumn de Wilde]
For all those expecting the rest of the album to be a similarly driving and muscled return to viciousness, though, it’s worth noting that this is actually the Stripes’s strangest record to date. “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn” is an out-of-left-field bagpipe jaunt that sounds so much better than it sounds like it sounds, especially right at that part when it sounds like Meg got tired of pounding her drums on the downbeats and started trying to break them. The bagpipes then carry over right into the next track, “St. Andrew (This Battle Is in the Air)”, a two-minute musical story-collage that creates some absolutely sweet chaotic atmosphere with fluttering bagpipe and off-tempo drummings to back some unclear but intriguing vocal narration in the form of a young girl’s entreaties to St. Andrew. It’s crazier than anything the Stripes have done yet outside of their seemingly not serious B-sides like “Who’s a Big Baby?”, but unlike those it’s so well done and interesting that it somehow manages to conjure an entirely surreal set of stories and images that managet to segue perfectly into the entirely conventional but amazing riffs of “Little Cream Soda”. And while all the far-out musical experiments they try work at least as well, they’re far from simply bagpipe-heavy experiments in alternative instrumentation or narrative. The Latin-trumpet-laced “Conquest” sees Jack White going so over-the-top that it works as ham while he wails away a tune seemingly made for the kind of perfectly-slick B-movie that never existed outside of Grindhouse‘s sleek imagination.
For each of these entertaining and masterfully executed expectation-defying experiments, however, Jack and Meg manage to pull off a (relatively) straightforward but absolutely killer new White Stripes tune. “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told)” comes out of the gate swinging like hard country rock, but the jagged beat wonderfully undercuts what is quite possibly the most “pop” tune the Stripes have rocked since De Stijl‘s “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl)”; “I’m Slowly Turning Into You”, coming near the album’s end, is a gorgeous organ-synth stagger that slowly turns into a guitar-solo and creepy-overdubbed-vocal freakout. “Rag & Bone” is equally catchy and excellent, but even more worth noting for how splendidly loose and fun the Stripes play it. They banter, they act, Jack sells with charisma and sleaze and the song whips along fuzzy and raw until they slow it down to talk and joke again.
If you’ve ever heard a White Stripes song you liked, you will like Icky Thump. Primed to join modern classics like White Blood Cells, Elephant and De Stijl at the top of their discography, the new album manages to hone the at-points-aimless progressive aspirations of Get Behind Me Satan into sharp, clear-cut musical growth: the Stripes learning to expand the sounds in their musical repertoire while retaining the focus, power, energy and consistency that made their best work. It’s better louder.