Almost half a century after it headed on the road to corporate domination, rock culture’s unpredictability?in the face of formulae frauds, and trend-setting fatigue?ensures enduring fascination. Two years ago, just before the British media caught the White Stripes bandwagon, who would have thought that Jack and Meg White would be recognised as saviours.
Consider their history. In 1996 Jack Gillis, the owner of a Detroit upholstery store, already a veteran of Motorcity garage rock also-rans Goober And The Peas, The Go and Rocket 88, marries barmaid Meg White. Taking his wife’s surname and passing himself off as her brother, Jack devises a two-piece band based on minimalist but striking red and white presentation and fixated on the base musical elements of blues, punk and country.
The self-titled debut highlights Jack’s incendiary guitar riffs and Meg’s bare-boned drum accents. Alongside the Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan covers, the talent for transmuting folk narratives into rough-diamond pop shines through. A second album, De Stijl, takes its name from the back-to-basics art design school of the early 1900s and emphasises both the Stripes’ primal power and furthers Jack’s funny, thoughtful persona. He’s an out-of-time/out-of-place Southern gentleman laying down a blues code of honour for the post-Generation X kids lost and rootless on the cyber highway.
When the paparazzi on the cover shot of their 2001 major label debut White Blood Cells became reality, heavy rotation on MTV and a Top 30 single, “Hotel Yorba”, followed. The question was: how long could they stand the white heat of the spotlight? The couple had divorced in 2000 and Jack, already making plans to launch an acting career, had made it clear the group had a limited lifespan, and even acolytes thought their career was destined to be played out beneath the mass media radar.
But there was also the hint that they were still keeping some powder dry, adding to their store of mercurial brilliance, ready when the time came to unleash something even more mindblowing than “I Think I Smell A Rat”, funnier than “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl)”, even more deranged than “The Big Three Killed My Baby”.
Elephant, a raging, cantankerous beast (recorded in London’s Toerag studios), is where those hints blossom into incontrovertible fact. Laced with enough blue-eyed longing (“You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket”) to make the most diehard Gram Parsons fan weep with wonder and the sort of verbal acuity that would give even Dylanologists pause for thought, Elephant is where the tabloid phenomenon of summer 2001 prove they are no flash in the pan by making a truly phenomenal record.
In its promo double vinyl incarnation, Elephant calls to mind pre-digital double albums like Blonde On Blonde, Exile On Main Street or London Calling. Like those landmarks, it features a group at their peak rejoicing in basic forms while bursting beyond their limitations.
The taut opener, “Seven Nation Army”, explodes with Jack verging on the edge of apoplectic fury. Both here and on the blistering “There’s No Home For You Here”?which climaxes in a talking-tongues outburst of contempt and features an astonishing multi-tracked, Vocodered backdrop?media clamour is a springboard for statements of faith and intent.
Elsewhere, the album’s declared theme?”the death of the sweetheart”?is fleshed out by White exploring blues lore at its most outrageously macho on “Ball And Biscuit”. Centred on a pelvis-pulsing riff overlaid with perfectly aimed bursts of Hendrix hysteria, its uproarious swagger feeds off a succession of great lines: “It’s quite possible that I’m your third man girl/But it’s a fact that I’m the seventh son” or “Tell everybody in the place to just get out and we can get clean together/And I’ll find me a soapbox where I can shout about it”.
A wracked cover version of Bacharach and David’s “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” indicates lofty songwriting intent. The gorgeous “I Want To Be With The Boy” rises to the challenge, the reverberating keyboards and worn vocal recalling the Stones in country-inflected mode. But this is no Primal Scream-style shallow homage, it’s a product of White’s individual and engaging schizophrenia.
When Meg sings the unabashedly sexy “Cold, Cold Night” accompanied by White’s suggestive bass organ pedals, the pleasure this pair take in toying with sexual role-play is palpable. The theme is replayed on the closing “It’s True That We Love One Another”, joined by Billy Childish associate Holly Golightly. The White Stripes devise a singalong love triangle that toys with their own myth. Was the marriage a con or was the divorce a put-on? Or is it simply that their musical relationship really is closer than blood brother and sister?
Such queries are the stuff of website intrigue but ultimately immaterial. The White Stripes’ zeal, the sense of newness they bring to old genres, their incandescent performances and razor-sharp songwriting put forerunners like The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in the shade.
Compared to the Stripes, The Strokes barely register, the one-note pleasures of The Hives and The Datsuns mere ripples to their big bang. They are quite simply in a league of their own. Ladies and gentlemen, your Elephant is ready and waiting.