'Get Behind Me Satan': The White Stripes, Undammed
Wednesday, June 8, 2005
Jack White of the White Stripes got married last week. To Karen Elson, a model he apparently met just weeks earlier. A shaman performed the ceremony in a canoe at the confluence of three rivers in Brazil.
Well, that's what we're told. You never know just what to believe with the White Stripes. The duo, guitarist and singer Jack and drummer Meg White, arrived on the garage revival scene a few years and four albums ago from the hinterlands of Detroit saying they were brother and sister. But the story was as fuzzy as the guitar playing, and it eventually came out that they were divorced from each other.
What rings truest about this new story, oddly enough, is the confluence of rivers. It sounds like a detail Jack White would appreciate. Someone who works to weave such disparate, often unrelated styles into one distinct sound and takes so much pleasure in the melding of retro rock and avant-garde ideas would want to get married at such a place: a meeting of pasts leading to an unpredictable, adventurous future.
With their new CD, "Get Behind Me Satan," the Stripes have again taken a wide array of musical influences and made them sound new and decidedly their own. A 13-song grab bag of everything from jagged Zeppelinesque wails and jarring blues to swampy southern rock and poor-pitiful-me country weepers, the album feels like a manic contradiction, veering from sound to sound, style to style and never really pausing to catch its breath. It manages to be simultaneously stripped down and layered, primitive and experimental, mostly acoustic and yet noisy as hell.
Lyrically, most of the songs fall into two categories. The first is of the wounded-heart variety. In fine falsetto, Jack White unleashes 2 1/2 minutes of self-pity on the throbbing opening track, "Blue Orchid." "You're given a flower," he wails, "But I guess there's just no pleasing you." That's followed by "The Nurse," another hard-luck-in-love track that begins, "The nurse should not be the one who puts salt in your wounds / But it's always with trust that the poison is fed with a spoon." Flavored by gentle marimba playing, it is interrupted with startling off-the-beat guitar and drum blasts that hint at the fury beneath the song's calm demeanor. Jack White watchers will no doubt view these songs, and others like "The Denial Twist," as the detritus of his failed relationship with actress Renee Zellweger, but that seems far too narrow an interpretation. The guy just likes writing about love gone sour.
He likes let's-get-it-on songs, too -- the smoldering, albeit desperate, "Instinct Blues" and "My Doorbell," maybe the catchiest song he has ever written. He's hurt in love on this one, too, but pleading like a teenager for wrongs to be righted. "I'm thinkin' about my doorbell / When ya gonna ring it, when ya gonna ring it," he sings, running the words together so they arrive in one magnificent blurt.
Of course, this being a White Stripes album, there are some truly strange songs as well. "Little Ghost" is a twisted hillbilly ramble about a woman who may or may not exist. Meg White makes her one lead singing appearance on the 35-second "Passive Manipulation," a cameo that is as creepy as it is catchy. And odder still are two songs ostensibly about Rita Hayworth -- "Take, Take, Take" and "White Moon" -- that might be better understood as jabs at celebrity worship in all its forms.
More than anything, "Get Behind Me Satan" is another example of why it's a mistake to lump the White Stripes in with the rest of the current class of retro bands or garage revivalists. While they all draw from rock's past, groups like the Killers, the Hives, even the Strokes, do little to advance the form. The music they make is pulled from rivers that have been dammed. The music of the White Stripes courses on, in directions unexpected and unpredictable.