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Published: 2005/07/07

Get Behind Me Satan – The White Stripes


Over the last ten years, The White Stripes have released an amazing string of albums that have done everything from reducing Rolling Stone scribes into tittering high school girls to prompting indie-rock mags like Spin to quit fondling themselves over life-sized Morrissey posters in favor of a new pale-faced figurehead for post-modern heartbreak. No matter how you slice the orgiastic critical ass-kissing contest, it’s impossible to get around the cold reality that Jack White is one of the most important rock figures of the last decade, a brilliant young musician who has attacked the supposed borders of his sound with the same astounding fearlessness that his warbled high-register delivery has been known to throttle the chorus of Dolly Parton’s "Jolene". If you, rational level headed listener, rightfully suspicious of the average rock-crit mongrel, doubt this assertion, you might be affected by Bob Dylan’s exuberant advocating of the band’s sound. You could also forget what everyone has to say and listen to its newest release Get Behind Me Satan.

The White Stripes often seem almost apologetic about being an American band, which is fairly ironic considering that it has been Jack's deliciously nasty manipulation of the American musical tradition, layered against his often brutal portraiture of its damned, that has made their music so transfixing, to say nothing of the role they have played in presupposing the next evolution of the blues — the most utterly American of pop music structures. Yet those very competing forces — between the band's disdain for what they seem to perceive as our unique brand of greed, lust, and gangrenous romance, and, on the other hand, their helpless immersion in that moral and spiritual chaos — continue to make them a band that we should be proud of, whether or not they are proud of us.

Ushering in their latest attempt with the familiar strains of lost innocence, howling guitar, and a radio-friendly appetizer, "Blue Orchid" finds White's pleasantly unnerving falsetto sweeping lightly across a scaffolding of riff-driven disco-metal, as Meg, quite simply, does what she does best in mercilessly beating the shit out of her cymbals. What ensues, however, is less expected.

Veering away from the blues-fueled, punk -tempered guitar tantrums of Elephant and White Blood Cells, the album recedes into a stripped down haze of marimbas and piano, honing its focus squarely in on Jack White, the prodigiously talented tunesmith and savvy revivalist. At once the romantic balladeer disciple of Cole Porter and the visceral blues-punk misanthrope, White’s songs manage to be as charming and elegant as they are perverse; clipped vignettes of the American grotesque drug through a familiar Tin Pan Alley tradition and tempered by the wicked, sex-starved dementia of his Noir psyche. Filtering that gift through a panoramic spectrum of native musical styles all tethered to an emotional center of isolation and doomed love, the collection veers everywhere from bluegrass Kinks-style folk, and swaying saloon lamentations to the arrogant sex-plea bruisers to which we are more accustomed. What’s more impressive is that even in its delicacy, the record manages to maintain the quivering, combustible urgency of any of the band’s distortion-laden freak-outs.

Like many of our most compelling musicians, White has evolved into something of a paradox. On the one hand he appears fully disdainful of celebrity (see, in this context, "Take Take Take", a fabulous ode to the celebrity fetish built around his muse Rita Heyworth), on the other he has very much indulged in the creation of his own notorious brand. In one moment he takes pains to weave further intricacy into the zany web of the band's Dylanesque self-mythology and eccentric, slightly macabre aesthetic, and in the next is decidedly self-effacing. He named his Delta-blues driven album De Stijl in honor of a movement in Dutch painting, and calls the band’s latest effort an "exploration into characters and the ideal of truth", yet his music bears an authenticity and desperate conviction which are pure empathy, owing far more to smoke-filled barrooms, back alleys, and bygone spirituals than any marble floored gallery.

His songs maintain similarly intriguing contrasts. "Little Ghost," an endearingly unhinged ditty detailing White's love affair with an apparition, emerges from the fray as a front porch bluegrass jaunt bustling under a lilting harmony, veiled in dark humor, underscored by a positively Fourth Street subconscious and embroidered with some clever interior rhyming:

"The first morning that I met her I did not expect a specter/when I shook her hand I really shook a glove/ She looked into me so sweetly and we left the room discreetly/No one else would know the secret of our love"

The equally clever "Forever for Her is Over for Me"— pared down carefully to marimba, egg shaker, acoustic guitar and drums — finds a touchingly articulate piece of nostalgia working itself passive-aggressively into an existential come-on, with White howling "Let's get on the plane and just do it" within a mist of crashing cymbals.

In the meantime, the band manages to re-visit the carnal sexuality of their blues obsession more directly with a series of swaggering concupiscent stomps ("My Doorbell", "Denial Twist"). Yet these are not, well, your slightly older sibling's White Stripes, and for every seething expression of libido and excess, there is a surprisingly vulnerable, keening gem like "I'm Lonely (But I Ain't That Lonely Yet)", which finds White unaccompanied at the piano working a weathered country ballad of the Hank Williams ilk into a touching portrait of reconciled isolation. Still, the sly, whispering perversity never strays far from the scene.

And I love my sister

Lord knows how I've missed her

She loves me and she knows I won't forget

And sometimes I get jealous of all her little pets

And I'm lonely, but I ain't that lonely yet.

In the face of their overwhelming critical success, The White Stripes have managed to do something rather remarkable in increasing the sophistication, craft, and even emotional depth of their sound each time they hit the studio. In the words of another writer who would have probably loved this band a great deal: Come home Jackie, all is forgiven.

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