Two and a half minutes into “Icky Thump”, something happens which is so perfect, you almost suspect the White Stripes‘ press officer magically orchestrated it.
We are sat in the boardroom at XL, listening to “Icky Thump” being played to us at generous volume. The title track comes first, and it sounds terrific. The Stripes have reminded me of Led Zeppelin plenty of times before, but I don’t think they’ve ever sounded quite this big. “Physical Graffiti” comes to mind, but there’s also this weird North African riff being played on a synth, and an organ solo which is pure Jon Lord. Meg White is hitting the drums with immense weight, while Jack continues to deconstruct rock structures as he goes along – stuttering when you expect him to charge, messing with the levels.
The thing is, it eventually occurs to us that the levels are being messed with a bit more than White had planned. In fact, “Icky Thump” is so powerful, it appears to have blown XL’s fancy stereo. We take the CD out, and the speakers are still crackling.
A few minutes later, we start again in another office, and first impressions prove correct. “Icky Thump” is yet another great White Stripes album, and one which amps them up in a new and grandiose way. If “Get Behind Me Satan” was predicated on piano, marimba and White’s experiments with pop, “Icky Thump” is all about electric guitar and giant drums.
In one way, it’s a return to the elemental first recordings of the band: songs like “Bone Broke” and “Little Cream Soda” recall “Cannon” and “Astro”, if memory serves, punctuated with those shrieking, high-frequency solos. The sound, though, is much heavier and fuller, at the same time. Again, I keep writing Led Zeppelin in my notes, even when the sound becomes folkier – as on the astonishing “300mph Torrential Outpour Blues”, where the meticulous layered guitars are strikingly close to a full band sound. During “Rag And Bone” (ostensibly Steptoe & Son re-enacted by Jack and Meg), I start suspecting my critical line may be a bit narrow, when the riff reminds me of Them‘s “Baby Please Don’t Go” – played, of course, by Jimmy Page.
On one listen, “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told)” sounds like the hit: a sort of Beatles/Southern Rock hybrid that would have fitted nicely onto the soundtrack of, sigh, Dazed And Confused. The next step on from “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground”, perhaps. The strangest two tracks are “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn” and “St Andrew (This Battle Is In The Air)”. The former begins like, yes I know, “Gallows Pole” before the bagpipes turn up and the Scottish imagery gets denser and wilder. Eventually, it shifts into “St Andrew”, a heated expansion of the musical and lyrical themes with a spoken word vocal by Meg. Describing it all makes it sound like whimsy – and their ongoing obsession with perceived British eccentricities can be seen in the cover shot of the pair in full Pearly Queen regalia, too. But these songs are intense rather than throwaway. The prevailing atmosphere of “Icky Thump” means that even the playfulness is delivered in a forceful frenzy.
Mexico figures, too. One of the redheaded women who stalk these songs is a “redhead senorita” (in “Icky Thump” itself), while “Conquest” (a Corky Robbins song popularised by Patty Page, apparently) is basically metal mariachi, with Jack going to head to head with trumpeter Regulo Aldama.
I haven’t had much time to pull the lyrics apart yet, but there doesn’t seem to quite as much playing with the brother/sister/family business. The notable exception is “I’m Slowly Turning Into You”, inspired by a Michel Gondry video treatment that has Jack gradually morphing into Meg. It’s a full-blooded love song (about Karen Elson, we could crudely assume?), but the complexity of the concept – and of Meg sharing the muttered chorus with Jack – means that their relationship remains the object of much sport from this most devious and compelling of bands. “Little Cream Soda” seems to be about the loss of innocence – another recurring theme, but one which gathers bigger apocalyptic resonances with every album.
The weakest track on that solitary listen seemed to be “Catch Hell Blues”, a slide guitar workout that’s technically brilliant but not immediately memorable. Really, though, I’m pretty sure they’ve done it again – given classic rock one more vicious and inventive twist. When I get to hear it another time, I’ll let you know.