It’s not like the signs and portents weren’t there. It’s not like there weren’t gaps in the White Stripes’ guitar onslaught that hinted at other ambitions. 1999’s The White Stripes had the mausoleum bounce of “St. James Infirmary Blues”, 2001’s White Blood Cells had the skipalong schoolyard vibe of “We’re Going to be Friends”, while 2003’s Elephant had a whole handful of songs where the White Stripes ditched their patented blues-rock bombast in favor of quiet eerieness, juantiness, and humor. When Jack White wasn’t busy trying to find all the Zeppelin riffs Jimmy Page never got around to writing, he was increasingly poking at the edges of his own sound.
So it should come as no surprise that Get Behind Me Satan continues that progression, but what may be surprising is how easily it leaves the electric guitar in its case, in favor of piano, marimbas, and a production aesthetic that recalls the dull haze of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. ‘Course, you’d never know it from the album’s lead-off track and single, “Blue Orchid”, a bone-rattling, fuzzed-out, attitude-laden buzzsaw in the classic White Stripes mold — a mold that Get Behind Me Satan pretty much immediately abandons.
Taken on its own, “Blue Orchid” is a powerhouse song that bristles with energy and anger, and the obvious choice for a single. Placed alongside the rest of Get Behind Me Satan, though, it sounds like a bit of a sop, a concession to market realities that prefer the Stripes’ Zeppelin allegiances front-and-center. If Get Behind Me Satan is the Stripes’ Led Zeppelin III (which also started with hard rock to, ironically, soften the blow of the acoustic fare that followed), then “Blue Orchid” is Jack White’s “Immigrant Song” (which Zeppelin reportedly custom-fit to capitalize on the successful template of “Whole Lotta Love”).
With that nod to commercial concerns out of the way, the duo get down to the business of supposedly confounding expectations (granted, the album’s not your standard blues-rock monolith, but it’s not as if Meg and Jack White should appear on the cover clad in turtlenecks a la Simon and Garfunkel — besides, Jack White seems intent on channeling both Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka and gaucho-phase Prince at the moment). “The Nurse” glides down night-lit hallways of nimble marimbas and is truly unlike anything the White Stripes have ever done. But at the same time, it’s where the duo dispel the notion that things are completely different from before. Meg White’s drumming pulverizes the marimbas when she comes in, signalling that brute force will always have a say in the band’s offerings (that’s not a criticism of White’s drumming, either; despite many cries to the contrary, I’ve always felt her bash-and-slam style fit the band’s sound pretty darn well). In fact, Meg White’s drumming acts as one of the strongest links to the White Stripes as we’ve known them up to this point.
That link’s pretty important, as Get Behind Me Satan offers some of the most, well, delicate White Stripes music to date. “As Ugly As I Seem”, a basic acoustic ditty, finds Jack White adopting the polite croon of today’s older and gentler Robert Plant. “Little Ghost” is a twangy, supernatural bit of hootenanny, while the Meg White-sung “Passive Manipulation” packs enough misdirection in its thirty-five seconds to keep armchair psychoanalysts busy for days. “I’m Lonely (But I’m Not that Lonely Yet)” sounds like an outtake from Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose.
But even on the more familiar-sounding songs, Get Behind Me Satan makes you reevaluate the idea of “power” in the hands of the White Stripes. It’s still there, but often lurking in the background, like thunder in the distance that never quite arrives. The piano often rumbles, and the marimbas and acoustic guitars come at you with a level of aggression typical of the band, only it’s masked by the arrangements’ unplugged nature. Release seeps out of Get Behind Me Satan instead of exploding like it does on the band’s past records. The ultra-catchy, piano-driven “My Doorbell” sounds like a lost Jackson 5 track, but Meg White’s kickdrum pulls at the melody like an anchor (plus, that piano riff itself pounds like a pogo-ing sledgehammer). “Take, Take, Take” is another strong slice of hard piano bounce, punctuated by an insistent break that, were it to be played on electric guitar, could bring the house down. “The Denial Twist” teems with short, sharp stabs of bottom-heavy piano, while “Instinct Blues” wallows in strutting, preening, dirty guitar. “Red Rain” roils with nasty slide guitar that sounds like grinding tectonic plates. For all their positive qualities, though, many of these songs also have moments that feel a little half-baked. “Red Rain”, for instance, feels a touch paint-by-numbers despite its guitar ferocity. It creates an unfair Catch-22: try to expand your sound into something more complex, but then get criticized that your more immediate pieces are, by contrast, lacking.
That, even more than the band’s burgeoning new sonic direction, makes Get Behind Me Satan a curious album. Too much of it — both on the “experimental” tracks and the “traditional White Stripes” tracks — feels like unfinished sketches. As if the White Stripes couldn’t wait to get done with the loud-and-nasty stuff, but that they also felt tentative about the exciting new sound. It’s easy to hear something like “My Doorbell”, which doesn’t have a lot of substance to go along with its insane piano hook, and wonder what could have been if the song had stayed in the oven a little longer. But lord, Jack White’s pop sensibilities are so strong that his piano riffs — which often seem rooted in vintage R&B — latch right onto your brain and make you enjoy the songs anyway. In fact, the more time you spend with Get Behind Me Satan, the more comfortable you become with its flaws. That said, those same flaws – a couple of throwaway songs, good pop hooks without the structure to raise them to greatness, production that sounds like the microphones are buried under bags of sand — make Get Behind Me Satan feel like one of those transitional “turning point” albums. It marks the moment when a band lays out their ambition for all to see, but it probably precedes an album where they actually shake things up by realizing that same newly self-imposed potential and promise.