Home Read Classic Album Review: The White Stripes | Elephant

Classic Album Review: The White Stripes | Elephant

Overnight success has not spoiled the Detroit indie-rock duo on their fourth album.

This came out in 2003 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):


It’s a funny thing: Teenagers become rock musicians because they want to be rich and famous. But anybody who’s watched so much as a single Behind the Music segment knows fame and fortune have destroyed more bands than bad aviation, heroin, vomit and ham sandwiches combined. Give your average struggling rock band worldwide recognition and Lotto-level moolah and you can almost guarantee their next album will be either a self-indulgent wankfest or a pale Xerox of its predecessor. Either way, it’s almost sure to suck and blow simultaneously.

So we can only thank our lucky stars that The White Stripes are not your average rock band. Despite their dizzying, near-vertical ascent from obscure Detroit garage-rockers to global indie-gods in the wake of their last album White Blood Cells, success has apparently not spoiled Jack and Meg White. Hell, if their forthcoming fourth album is anything to go by, it’s barely even registered on their radar.

On the 14-track Elephant — fittingly due April Fool’s Day on CD and coloured vinyl, with six different covers — things are pretty much the same as they ever were in Stripeland. Singer-guitarist Jack and ex-wife drummer Meg are still the king and queen of their own little world. They still pretend to be brother and sister. They still dress in red and white. They’re still musical Luddites. They still write songs that toggle between garage-rock, blues, folk, Detroit metal and even country, yet somehow retain a stylistic consistency. Meg still bashes away with all the enthusiasm and technique of a happy kindergartener. Jack is still a one-man wall of fuzz-rawk glory — and a brilliant songwriter to boot. And I bet they still wonder what all the fuss is about.

Albums like this are what all the fuss is about. Recorded in just two short weeks on an eight-track tape machine and instruments that are older than the band members, Elephant — supposedly dedicated to “The Death of the Sweetheart” — is yet another lo-fi masterwork from the Sonny and Cher (or at least the Royal Trux) of the 21st century. More to the point, it’s also a brilliantly planned and flawlessly executed followup to White Blood Cells, remaining true to their roots — an elephant never forgets, after all — while simultaneously pushing the envelope just far enough to keep themselves interested and fend off accusations of artistic stagnation.

Most of the set list is virtually guaranteed to please the masses who flocked to White Blood Cells. Loved those blistering, bloozy stompers? There are plenty here — the primal Black Math, the searing Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine and the Zeppelinesque Ball and Biscuit. In love with Fell In Love With A Girl? Skip to Hypnotise, which does the frug to the same go-go beat. Prefer the downtempo brooding of Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground? Meet its second cousin, There’s No Home for You Here. Repeat. Enjoy.

At the same time, though, the Stripes add a few new flavours and dishes to the menu for folks who want more than another portion of comfort food. I Want To Be The Boy is a piano number that captures Jack rasping away like some ersatz Rod Stewart. Little Acorns cuts and pastes a self-help infomercial to brooding piano chords. You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket is a quietly gorgeous little folk-blues number. In The Cold, Cold Night is a Fever-ish little ditty featuring Meg on the mic. There’s No Home For You Here finds Jack juxtaposing squealing feedback and Beatles-style choral melody. And the countrified closer It’s True That We Love One Another exposes Jack and Meg in a musical menage with U.K. garage-pop goddess Holly Golightly, who winkingly says she loves Jack “like a little brother.” His reply: “Well, Holly, I love you too / But there’s just so much that I don’t know about you.”

Not that that’s a bad thing — after all, despite all their success, we still don’t know all that much about Jack and Meg either, which is a nice change of pace in our world of celebrity baby pictures and reality TV. But here’s one thing we do know: Elephant sounds like an album The White Stripes would have made even if they weren’t being hailed as the world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band. And that’s precisely why they deserve to be.