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The White Stripes: The Elephant in the Room

2nd July 2008

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Browse any number of music forums and message boards around the web sometime and search for threads related to The White Stripes. Invariably you will find a growing chorus of fans who fell in love with the post-punk sublimity of De Stijl and, to a lesser extent, the breakthrough White Blood Cells, only to be almost entirely alienated by the rotten egg they laid in 2003 with the muddled catastrophe of Elephant. Now with Icky Thump living up only to the first word of its title with the occasional exception (the title track among them), it seems as if the momentary streak of brilliance they offered on Get Behind Me Satan–a wild and stunningly successful departure from the tired recipe of previous albums–was merely a passing tease.

It’s surely no surprise that their major-label debut–Icky Thump–interrupted what Satan foreshadowed: a stretching of the band’s creative boundaries that left them to explore as broad a range of possibilities as ever before. In keeping with the kind of anxieties that accompany major-label debuts by established bands (as in Death Cab’s pitiful Plans, their first LP for Atlantic), Icky Thump sounded like the timid product of sessions in which the band tried their damnedest to sound like the band their label wanted–and so the album went in two different directions at once, with one foot on the beaten path of all the band had done before and the other in the more eccentric arrangements Jack White showcased on Get Behind Me Satan.

Satan qualifies as a rock ‘n roll landmark and is at once the band’s most daring and accessible piece of work–and if you think that’s an easy balance to strike, you try it, tough guy. But of all the band’s 6 albums, one stands alone as the turning point that we didn’t have the hindsight to see for what it was at the time: 2003’s Elephant, a total crapper of an album from start to finish that rivals only the more recent Icky Thump in indulgence and unlistenability.

After firmly establishing themselves as the undisputed rock ‘n roll resurrection by 2003, The White Stripes answered their growing frenzy of devotees with one dud of an album. A band that, just a year prior, was universally hailed as a much-welcome throwback to a sound long dead, the stripped down guitar/drums duo from Detroit seemed about as interested in fanning the flames of their growing fame as a 25-year-old Neil Young. “That album put me in the middle of the road, so I headed for the ditch,” Young, who followed up 1972’s monumental Harvest with the deliberately inaccessible Time Fades Away in 1973, explained years later. Young has since called it his worst album and, to this day, has refused to release it on CD (it remains a vinyl-only collector’s gem.) It seems that the White Stripes are up to much of the same thing on the careless, uninspired and puerile albums Elephant and Icky Thump.


The White Stripes: “Blue Orchid,” Get Behind Me Satan (2005)

What were addictive and delightfully anachronistic rockers on De Stijl and White Blood Cells have given way to a drab collections of clunkers that sound more like sloppy, half-baked demos and outtakes. Taut, muscular collections doused in blues and grit such as De Stijl demonstrated a mammoth potential, rekindling the hopes of long-time subscribers to the “rock is dead” mantra. The orgasmic cacophony that emerged from Meg White’s sizzling drums and Jack White’s guitar and uncanny wail produced a sound that resounded with improbable richness and fervor. It was hardly unfamiliar but still, somehow, distinctive. From gorgeous rock ballads like “Same Boy You’ve Always Known” to raucous jams like “Fell In Love With A Girl” or the brain-searing “Let’s Build A Home,” Meg and Jack White, knowingly or not, had taken the fate of rock ‘n roll into their hands.

Beginning with an unlikely bass line complimented by Meg’s angry, thumping drums, Elephant serves as a mighty tease. Just as it seems that The Stripes had at last discovered a sound of even deeper texture and richness without compromising their essential minimalism, the album unfolds into so much noise and nonsense. Song after song rings hollow, as Jack’s lazy guitar simply mimes old motions while the downright irreverent snap of Meg’s drumming is conspicuously dormant. A shrieking, murky chorus ruins the aimless “There’s Just No Home For You Here,” while “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” sounds, at best, like an anemic stepchild to superior ballads from past albums, such as “Union Forever” and “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known.”

Perhaps Elephant‘s most egregious moment comes on the pseudo-poetic “In The Cold Cold Night,” on which Meg White sounds entirely foolish, lending a self-conscious and timid croon to lines so juvenile as to be the stuff of bad teen angst poetry:

I saw you standing on the corner,On the edge of a burning light,

I saw you standing on the corner,

Come to me again in the cold cold night…

“I don’t care what other people say, I’m gonna love you anyway,” she continues to the plucking of a guitar lick that sounds like a ragged attempt at nailing down a Harry Mancini riff.


The White Stripes: “Well it’s True That We Love One Another,” Elephant (2003)

As with most rock ‘n roll mishaps, though, a few gems emerge from the rubble of an unfortunate album. The explosive “Seven Nation Army” resounds with such energy and purpose as to seem like the work of another band altogether. The mean-eyed “The Hardest Button to Button” would crack an indulgent smile from the mouth of any AC/DC die-hard, and a flicker of soul ignites the piano-drenched “I Want To Be The Boy”–a sound the band would extend to such astonishing effect on Get Behind Me Satan.

Overall, however, the once formidable White Stripes seem to have morphed into a joke that few others are cool enough to get. “Just say Jack do you adore me,” Meg slurs on the silly, throwaway tune recorded with punk-rocker Holly Golightly, “It’s True That We Love One Another.” “Well I really would Holly but love really bores me” Jack answers. Judging from the remarkably listless Elephant, one wonders whether the music, too, bores poor Jack.

Icky Thump and Elephant are the modern-day equivalents of Goat’s Head Soup and It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll, two underwhelming albums the Stones slapped together in the stunned aftermath of Exile on Main Street, that enduring masterpiece they released in 1972. Only fleeting glimpses of The Stones’ genius emerged from that point on–a tight tune somewhere on Tattoo You or a surprising sign of grit on more recent rock-outs like “Gunface” or “Dangerous Beauty.” If it’s true that history repeats itself, it’s a safe bet to expect only fleeting glimpses of brilliance from The Stripes going forward, yet another now-legendary rock band we once so trustingly relied on for an escape from the mindless doldrums of FM radio.


The Rolling Stones: “Gunface,” Bridges to Babylon (1997)

16 Responses to “The White Stripes: The Elephant in the Room”

  1. White Stripes Defender Says:

    whoever wrote this article is totally wrong….

    elephant was one of the more succesful albums (taking them all the way to the 2004 grammy awards)

    and blue orchid is from get behind me satan not icky thump

    although i agree icky thump is horrible elephant was a great album with seven nation army….the hardest button to button…hypnotize….black math

  2. admin Says:

    Thanks so much for correcting our error on Blue orchid–yikes!

    The Grammies are notoriously late to recognize great talent. The larger reason they afforded Elephant attention was that they took a world of shit for totally ignoring the vastly superior White Blood Cells–which they blew off without even so much as a single nomination.

    This happens quite often with the Grammies–they ignore one great record, so the next time that person puts out another album, no matter how shitty it is, they lavish it with praise and gold to wipe the egg off their faces. This is one of many reasons why the Grammies are no reliable barometer of quality.

    Anyone who listens to Elephant side by side with De Stijl in one sitting will admit that the former sounds like the work of a White Stripes cover band. Both Button and Army are one-note clunkers compared to Death Letter or Harder to be a Gentleman.

  3. Michael Brett Says:

    Wow. Get Behind Me Satan I thought was disappointing. Ooooh, Jack has marimbas. How experimental and grown-up! It’s grown on me since, but…

    Elephant is their best album. It follows the same concepts as the previous two albums, just with more consistency and a harder edge. Real hard.

    If you think chargers like Button and Army are clunkers you should keep to lite fm staples like Peter Salett and leave rock critiscm to those not afraid to rock.

    A

  4. admin Says:

    There is simply no way in hell that Elephant is the Stripes’ best album. That distinction clearly belongs to De Stijl. For the life of me, I will never understand how in the world anyone can possibly suggest that monotone, one-chord bores like “Seven Nation Army” are even remotely comparable to the glories of “Operator,” “Death Letter, “Harder to Be A Gentleman” or, for that matter, Jack White’s sizzling take on Bob Dylan’s “Love Sick” in his live shows. It’s absolutely bizarre and mystifying.

  5. Dylan Handelman Says:

    Okay, I have a few things to say to you. I think some of the things that you say about GBMS is extremely obvious, and is only just fluff in your article here. I’m not gonna say everything you claim in this article is completely wrong as we all are entitled to our opinions on music. But, you attack Elephant a very good amount in this article. I’m assuming you’ve listened to the album more than once, and I just have to say that it is not a “muddled catastrophe” or a “dud of an album”. I say this because, the album, although you claim to have dissapointed their fans, attracted many new fans. It got The White Stripes noticed, probably more than ever before with Seven Nation Army. People love that song. Jack White was able to bring in new fans and introduce them to a new sound. There has not been many bands in the past to ever put out blues/country/rock inspired 2 peice bands that really digs down into the simplicity of music. Jack White, in his musical creativity, cooked up what he could, using the bare-bone neccesites of rock’n roll. Besides Seven Nation Army, which doesn’t sound like “the work of a different band altogether”…listen to Dead Leaves and the Drity Ground, The album is in many ways, incredible. The weakest song on the album is In the Cold Cold Night, but in many ways it adds to the beauty of the album. It brings a new edge to the bands music, as we have never really heard meg have her own song before. The simple guitar makes the song seem very delicate, as does her raw-untouched voice. Also, at the shows I have been too, people seem to enjoy the song being played. I also believe that Jacks song writing has become even more mature, when compared to the music he wrote on his early releases. recording in his house in Detroit on a cassette. He has matured in many ways, and in many of the songs he tries to incorporate his newly hearkened talents with the original idea of the band.

  6. admin Says:

    You advise listening to “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground.” I’m hopeful you realize that that song does NOT appear on Elephant, but rather on its predecessor, White Blood Cells, an album I praise both in the article and in my comments here. I fell in love with The Stripes listening to De Stijl and White Blood Cells–I hear not one tossed-off tune on either album. Not ONE. I hear many on Elephant (and just as many on Icky Thump.)

    I am also as fanatical a lover of the very stripped-down, 2-piece sound as you are–I agree entirely that it is both difficult to pull off and immensely rewarding when someone manages to do so (another great example of minimalist glory in rock ‘n roll right now would be The Gossip, although they are a 3-piece.) Elephant, though, is a derivative echo of the glories that precede it–namely De Stijl and White Blood Cells. Their last great album is Get Behind Me Satan, and, judging from Icky Thump, it may stay that way for quite some time.

    By the way, I do not claim that Elephant “disappointed fans.” I claim that it disappointed ME. That Elephant earned the band new fans is, to me, more a result of the effective advertising campaign that surrounded the album than it is of the album’s quality. Plenty of people loved “Who Let the Dogs Out” and “Macarena” when they came out–does that make those songs masterpieces? As Neil Young argues in his song “Piece of Crap,” a good ad will make you buy the most useless shit imaginable–and that, in my view, is what happened with Elephant in 2003. They suddenly found themselves the band that the cool kids were supposed to like, the band whose shows you needed to be seen at. Like the Beatles playing at Shea in 1965, they could have gotten on stage and sang Humpty Dumpty for two hours back then and the crowd would have roared their mindless approval.

  7. Dylan Handelman Says:

    I understand that Dead Leaves is not on ELephant, I was only comparing Seven nation army too it, because you claimed that it sounded like a different band all together…I guess I missinterpreted you. It seems that you are a stripes fan, and I do like that you enjoy GBMS, which to me shows that you are a fan of jack’s song writing. I just want you to appreciate how good Elephant is. Im not saying it is their best album because that would be wrong, as their sound has changed so much over the course of their career. What started as very primitive and haunting, a band that sounded like The Gories, has morphed into a more complex sound. You have to understand that Jack is toying and experimenting with what modern technology offers him in the studios. I think you should really try and give the album another chance. It is the hardest album they have ever put out with songs like Black Math, SNA, Girl you have no faith and Little Acorns. All of those songs are definently well written and enjoyable. Ball and Biscuit is another song that I think makes the album what it is. It’s bluesy riff and lengthy solo’s are something Jack has never really put out. I can undertstand you not liking In the cold cold night and Its true, but that doesnt the constitute you bashing the album. There are just too many great songs. I also dont userstand how you dont like Theres No Home For You Here… I think that song is one of the better written songs Jack has done. THe lyrics are pretty forceful and the bridge in that song is another amazing bridge that Jack seems to write. Hopefully you will change your opinion.

  8. admin Says:

    I think this is a very balanced argument you make and I appreciate your comments very much. I will try to give Elephant a second chance, but it’s unlikely to ever replace the big three for me (De Stijl, WBC, GBMS.)

  9. White Stripes Defender Says:

    thanks for replying to my previous comment….but u screwed up blue orchid again its from get behind me satan…..and i do agree the first three albums were the best but elephant is the most garage rock album by them since white blood cells which was 7 years ago….gotta give it to em elephant is still a good album showed tht jack can take one chord and warp it into a masterpiece much like all the songs on previous albums

  10. admin Says:

    Ah, Christ! I’ll try saying this three times fast to myself to see if it sinks in: “Blue Orchid’s track 1 on GBMS! Blue Orchid’s track 1 on GBMS! Blue Orchid’s track 1 on GBMS!”

    Thanks for keeping us honest (and accurate). I really appreciate your feedback.

  11. White Stripes Defender Says:

    no problem

  12. ben Says:

    “By the way, I do not claim that Elephant “disappointed fans.” I claim that it disappointed ME. That Elephant earned the band new fans is, to me, more a result of the effective advertising campaign that surrounded the album than it is of the album’s quality. Plenty of people loved “Who Let the Dogs Out” and “Macarena” when they came out–does that make those songs masterpieces? As Neil Young argues in his song “Piece of Crap,” a good ad will make you buy the most useless shit imaginable–and that, in my view, is what happened with Elephant in 2003. They suddenly found themselves the band that the cool kids were supposed to like, the band whose shows you needed to be seen at. Like the Beatles playing at Shea in 1965, they could have gotten on stage and sang Humpty Dumpty for two hours back then and the crowd would have roared their mindless approval.” Jack and Meg have consistently refused to do advertising. It is true that Seven Nation Army was probably one of the most overplayed songs in history, but with good reason. It is a brilliant song, and certainly one of the most unique pop songs that has been released in ages. Who else plays slide guitar on their singles? Sure it’s simplistic, but being sophisticated and technical was never a goal for the stripes. They’re about beauty through simplicity, and there are a lot of beautiful images in the lyrics in that song. Hell, they’re one of the only popular bands who have any lyrical substance and are still accessable to most people.

  13. admin Says:

    OK, come on now people, let’s not get silly: whether or not Jack & Meg have “consistently refused to do advertising,” the album Elephant was PLASTERED ON EVERY WALL OF NEW YORK CITY FOR MONTHS AROUND AND AFTER ITS RELEASE. I lived up there at the time, and I can tell you that their label took out all the stops cramming this album down everyone’s throat when it came out–I do not, by “advertising,” mean that Jack & Meg were caught red-handed selling perfume for Channel. I mean that the album itself was hyped desperately, loudly and EVERYWHERE–you could not pick up a magazine or turn on the radio back then without being made to feel ashamed of yourself for not owning this album. And so now, of course, should someone dare suggest an alternative point of view to all that establishment hype, a chorus of resistance ensues.

  14. White Stripes Defender Says:

    I’ve recently read that The White Stripes have a 7th album coming out soon. Do you think the raconteurs will influence jack back to his garage-punk-blues self?

  15. admin Says:

    That’s a great point. The new Raconteurs album is brilliantly raucous, and a very welcome surprise after their boring and terribly over-hyped debut. It’s certainly possible that Consolers of the Lonely could rub off on the next Stripes effort–especially if Jack has any leftovers from those sessions that he might revisit in sessions for the next Stripes release. If so, we may well hear more of where White Blood Cells and De Stijl left off–and we’ll be the first to happily sing their praises here on Culturespill. Guaranteed.

  16. admin Says:

    The Legendary Lost Tapes have actually been around since 2004. It’s not a new album. It’s a collection of bootleg live recordings and some demos from the late 1990s and early 2000s. You can catch a glimpse of the track list here:

    http://a4.vox.com/6a00c2252c8528549d00d4142cda443c7f-pi

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