In 2004, a friend of mine burned me a CD of the White Stripes’ third album, 2001’s White Blood Cells; because I didn’t have a jewel case for it, I stored it in an AOL trial disc case that came in the mail. It was a hard cardboard affair with a plastic well for the disc to sit in (with those little teeth that, if you push just slightly in the middle, will hurt your finger while releasing the CD from their clutches). I used White Out and red pen to draw my own little album art because while I was too much of a freshman in high school — with no car and no job to obtain and pay for the real thing. I did respect the object of the songs my friend had stolen and then made an illicit copy of for me. Like Jack White in the early days of his band, the least I could do was create a handcrafted symbolic representation of what miracles were inside that former free trial case.
I think I’ve made up for this offense by now, however — Third Man Records: if you’re reading this, believe me, you’ve done more than break even with me — and White Blood Cells remains my favorite White Stripes album. I have every piece of physical ephemera they’ve pulled out of the archive, and I plan on (once again) waiting in the cold outside of Third Man Record’s Detroit store for the limited red and white pinwheel vinyl reissue of the album in October. Like my original design, the LP is a splendid blend of bright red, pristine white, and sinister black; I presume the raw matter they press into the vinyl isn’t comprised of office supplies stolen from my dad’s desk drawers, though. It’ll be a special artifact to me all the same.
Now, I don’t share this to brag. After all, collecting White Stripes vinyl can be a tedious and expensive hobby (god, I hope my wife doesn’t read this), and in a way, it’s antithetical to what made the White Stripes so special. They were, at their core, a profoundly simple band. If you look beyond their duo status as a pure novelty, you end up with two people toggling between a handful of instruments and making deceptively modest music. But again, this is not meant as a knock against them (or, more specifically, Meg White, who isn’t a bad drummer because she can’t separate her arm from her foot, but rather the perfect drummer because she dishes up exactly what each song needs and nothing more). No tri-colored 7” record can recreate how sublime these songs sound the first you listen to them (and every time after). No material object will ever be as sacred as the first dance at my wedding to the sentimental “I Can Tell We’re Going to be Friends” (on second thought, god, I hope my wife does read this).
They might be my special band, but as White Blood Cells continues to demonstrate, the White Stripes are still a lot of other people’s special band, too.
There are so many moments on White Blood Cells — which came out 20 years ago last week, on 3 July — that could be a suitable focal point (depending on what narrative you apply to the album or through what lens you want to read its 16 tracks).
The most obvious is likely throwaway track “Little Room”, wherein Jack shouts over some of Meg’s most barbaric drumming (I mean this as a compliment). “When you’re in your little room / And you’re working on something good / But if it’s really good / You’re going to need a bigger room / And while you’re in a bigger room / You might not know what to do / You might have to think about how you got started / Sitting in your little room”, he sings. White Blood Cells signals this exact moment in the White Stripes’ career. While they never lost their work ethic, their headlining shows at small garage rock venues in Detroit were (at the risk of being too on the nose) literally replaced by bigger rooms. Tons of them, in fact.
Another possible focal point is “Fell in Love With a Girl” because of its iconic, Michel Gondry-directed animated LEGO video and minute-and-50-second duration of pure bubblegum punk bliss.
You could also look to the unofficial anthem for all twee indie film soundtracks (“I Can Tell We’re Going to Be Friends”) or perhaps the Nashville country-fried stomper “Hotel Yorba”. Or, maybe it’s the single greatest argument for guitar distortion, as well as the all-time best album opener, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”. It could even be fan-favorite deep cut “The Union Forever”, which is the center of gravity on White Blood Cells that gave us an early preview of the paranoid pop culture references that Jack White would feature in the lyrics of his solo albums.
However you choose to look at it, White Blood Cells is the most natural progression imaginable from their 1999 self-titled debut and confident follow-up, 2000’s De Stijl. Raw power still lives in these tracks, whose homages to and reverences for the blues hang humid in the air of Jack White’s gravitas. Doubling down on the color scheme and sibling act, White Blood Cells ups the ante with its own novelty constraint: a sprinting week-long studio trip at Easley McCain Recording in Memphis, Tennessee.
Nevertheless, their third album in as many years also offers a great many surprises in how each track ping pongs around different genres of music (all of which you can imagine lived on the record shelves of Jack White’s childhood home). It also offers a nice compromise for older fans who expected to hold the door open for new listeners brought in on the more accessible (but still excellent) pop hits from the record. Some of the tracks, like “Same Boy You’ve Always Known” and “Dead Leaves”, had been long in rotation for White Stripes live sets. As if the studio version of the latter song were to say: “Hey, thanks for getting greasy with us at a 150-person room in Hamtramck! Here’s that one song you liked with the effects pedal all the way up without a guy yelling for another PBR over the opening riff”.
Speaking of the White Stripes in their most natural environment (live), and in celebration of the album’s 20th anniversary, Third Man Records just released a deluxe reissue that includes a very special live show from 7 June 2001, during which the pair previewed White Blood Cells in its entirety live at Detroit’s storied — and tragically burned down — Gold Dollar venue. Originally part of a Third Man Vault exclusive vinyl set, this performance is a revelation. Now available on most major streaming platforms and for digital purchase, everyone can hear White Blood Cells Live at the Gold Dollar, which gives us an unimpeachable portrait of how well these songs, and the whole album, translate to the live setting.
It’s unfair to judge an album by its ancillary materials. But when you hear the urgency of these songs (be it the unlikely electric guitar-led “Hotel Yorba” or the soaring riffs of “I Think I Smell a Rat”), the mindset Jack and Meg brought into the studio for their brief week of recording becomes impossibly clear. Authenticity can be a criticism buzzword emptier than the beer I feel compelled to slam after listening to “Offend in Every Way”. However, even looking at how closely the track lengths mirror each other between the studio and the live recording, it is obvious how authentic — how real — the White Stripes were. We can’t see the White Stripes on stage anymore, and that’s too bad because — as people tell it — that’s the way they were meant to be enjoyed. What a gift, then, that White Blood Cells is a reasonable facsimile of this band at their absolute best.
And that is the focal point of White Blood Cells: The White Stripes at their absolute best. This record lacks the grime of their previous albums, misses the stadium anthems of their later albums, and is devoid of distracting narrative details like Meg’s battle with anxiety and Jack’s oft-boorish behavior in the media. It’s just some songs that all happen to kick ass. (On the other hand, maybe there isn’t a focal point after all. Maybe each song provides a unique glimpse at a band transitioning from a little room to becoming the undisputed winner of the rock and roll revival who stayed the course in the truest way they could before walking away when they’d said all they needed to say.)
At the beginning of the closing track, “This Protector”, Meg states, “I never thought that I had to be this protector / So many thoughts inside my head a strange collector.” I don’t presume to know what she means by that, but the idea of a “strange collector” is a helpful way to organize White Blood Cells’ 16 songs.
So, let’s protect them one by one.
“Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”
The best opening track of all time, on any album and from any genre. It’s not even up for debate (but I’m open to discussing it with you on Twitter anyway if you want).
Fun fact: someone once paid me money to mail them a jar of dirt from the actual yard of the actual Hotel Yorba in Detroit. Jack White famously tells a story about how the hotel staff were less than hospitable during the shooting of the music video on the premises, so I did this with haste and as much stealth as a dork in a White Stripes t-shirt could do. No judgment, though; I got myself a jar, too.
“I’m Finding It Harder to Be a Gentleman”
Maybe the greatest studio track in their discography to use piano and guitar. (This distinction excludes “The Denial Twist” and “White Moon” from Get Behind Me Satan as the band’s best piano pop song and ballad, respectively. Plus, “Honey, We Can’t Afford to Look This Cheap” is a B-side, so it doesn’t count.) That moment when Jack White sings, “If I held the door open for you, it would make your day” into a gnashing guitar riff is sneakily the best moment of the record.
“Fell in Love with a Girl”
I don’t want to be morbid, but this is on my “If The Plane Starts Crashing” playlist. One minute and fifty seconds of bliss.
You have to imagine De Stijl fans were excited about this one since it’s got the crunchiness of “Death Letter” or “Hello Operator” and a weird little breakdown that you just know was sick at live shows. Also, Jack White gives a nice little shoutout to his southern neighbors in Ohio with the all-time best pronunciation of “Toledo”: “Toe-leee-dough!”
Don’t worry, you two: you’ve got something good going here.
“The Union Forever”
I used to work with a guy who also loved The White Stripes, and one day, we were cleaning up the café after close, and this song came on. He stopped mopping; turned the volume all the way up; poured and succinctly slammed a whole beer; looked at me; and said, “He’s right: there’s no true love”. Goddamn, that must have been some break-up, and there’s a lot of power in that three-and-a-half-minute song.
“The Same Boy You’ve Always Known”
Maybe this is a privileged take, but if you’ve seen Jack White play this one — ideally, by himself — the barenaked whisper of that last line (“And if there’s anything good about me / I’m the only one who knows”) is an absolutely heart-stopping moment. But even when “plugged”, Meg’s subdued drumming keeps beating just fast enough to journey through the song. It features some of his best writing, hands down.
“We’re Going to Be Friends”
“Offend in Every Way”
It’s astonishing that this isn’t one of the four singles released from the album (instead, we got “Hotel Yorba”, “Fell in Love with a Girl”, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”, and “We’re Going to Be Friends”) because in another universe, “Offend in Every Way” is as widely loved as any of those four songs. Maybe it suffers from success, but musically and lyrically, it’s the perfect White Stirpes song. Maybe it sounds so much like a White Stripes song that it misses the soul? Hard to say, so check back in 20 years to see if I’ve come around on this joint.
“I Think I Smell a Rat”
. . . is a song where, whenever I see the title, I immediately “speak” the guitar riff out loud. “Oh, I think I smell a rat / Oooohhh, I think I smell a rat / Dododododoo, daahhnnaaahh, nah, nanana, doo” and so on. The song is almost silly since the lyrics are nonsense (a perverse nursery rhyme) and the guitar part is particularly bonkers. If not for the instrumental follow-up, “Aluminum”, “Rat” would more or less go down like an instrumental of its own.
“Aluminum”, like “Rat”, has a bonkers guitar riff and lots of madcap distortion. In a post-Boarding House Reach world — which saw Jack White pushing the limits of noise and guitar — it fits in his catalog, but man, I’d love to erase my memory of the first time I heard this song to figure out what the hell it is all over again.
“I Can’t Wait”
Another classic White Stripes ballad! It has some great drumming from Meg and lyrics (about their marriage, which, by 2001, ended in divorce) demands sensationalizing! After all, who doesn’t like a little garage rock tune that comes with gossip!?
The White Stripes were not a bubblegum pop band, but they wrote and recorded bubblegum pop songs. “Now Mary” is the quintessential White Stripes bubblegum pop song. Please, join me in speculating if the hook – “What a season / To be beautiful / Without a reason” – is a lovely thing to say or instead a Ben Gibbard-level mean thing to say to (or about) a girl.
“I Can Learn”
“I wish we were stuck up a tree” is the silliest opening line of any White Stripes song. I might be wrong about that, but despite having an encyclopedia of White Stripes lyrics on demand in my brain — yet I still don’t know CPR — I can’t think of another line that even comes close. I do know, however, that early in the White Stripes’ mission statement was a sense of childlike wonder. Surely, the lyrics in “I Can Learn” meet that goal. Not for nothing, but live recordings of “I Can Learn” really showcase Jack White leaning into that melodramatic warble his voice can do, too, and that’s worth at least a penultimate album cut.
Here’s how we bring this all together: later in the song, White says, “You thought you heard a sound / There’s no one else around”. For an album that’s so joyful, you can’t help but wonder if (after three lightning-fast years of touring behind White Stripes and De Stijl, not to mention writing and recording White Blood Cells in a week’s time) the duo wondered who would show up to hear this record. There’s something haunting and anxious about those “but now’s”. The album is, after all, different than their first two. Not so dramatically, but what if, as they toil over in “Little Room”, the thing they worked on that was good — the thing that necessitated a bigger room — ends up veering too far afield of the thing that made them good in the first place?
“You thought you heard a sound / There’s no one else around / Looking at the door / It’s coming through the floor.”
And that’s the thing: it isn’t the size of the room. The sound isn’t coming from outside the room; the sound isn’t about what color the people in the room were wearing or whether the people in the room were brother and sister or husband and wife. What made it good — what made the White Stripes good overall — and what makes White Blood Cells the perfect White Stripes album is the room itself; it’s the sound coming from inside whatever room Jack and Meg were in, and I think the White Stripes knew that.