Be As You Are

Spurned celebrity and his minimalist art project deliver songs of romantic disappointment

Well, shit—who wouldn't marry Kenny Chesney instead? A laid-back little fella, he'll wash if you dry, sniffle proudly at your daughter's graduation, whisk you off to Tim and Faith's beach house for the weekend. Sure, one Amstel Light too many can instigate a 4 a.m. Billy Joel sing-along with his Lambda Chi bros, but at least he won't sulk Saturday night away in the attic alphabetizing Blind Blake wax cylinders by gas lamp. And any juniorette Joan Rivers who refuses to condone a Stetson at the altar should check Jack White's latest promo glossies. You'd prefer your groom decked out like a Hasidic Johnny Depp piloting the TARDIS to 19th-century Spain?

Not to belabor the Page Six subtext, but hey, celebrity is as celebrity does. If White repeatedly lunges chin-first into songs of romantic disappointment, well, isn't he just beggingfor a Gawker link to his Live Journal? On the first four tracks of Get Behind Me Satan an emissary from the unfair sex discolors Jack's flowers, salts his wounds, leaves his doorbell unrung, and allows "everybody's reactions" to distract her from his undying love. And a rebound marriage to redheaded supermodel Karen Elson makes White's whine of "I wanna get a piece of hair" in "Take, Take, Take," his stalker ode to Rita Hayworth, that much creepier. The control freak who once approvingly echoed C.F. Kane's disinterest in gold mines, oil wells, shipping, and real estate surely knows how Orson Welles asserted his husbandly prerogative over Hayworth's luxurious red curls—with a pair of shears and a bottle of dye.

To be fair, White, like Welles, is some kind of wunderkind formalist. After the humid Van Lear Rose illustrated White's facility with a full palette, his return to checkerboard basics on "Blue Orchid" feels even more deliberately austere, and "Instinct Blues" is a more effective (because more concise) exercise in single-riff shredding than Elephant's "Ball and Biscuit." Even with the marimba flourishes and thudding piano that expand his rhythmic and dynamic range, White never colors carelessly outside the blocky lines that Meg, bless her metronomic heart, stolidly provides. At their core, after all, the White Stripes remain a wickedly righteous design scheme: a perfectly realized minimalist art project that rocks. So maybe when White croaks lovesick demands with the high-strung self-regard that smart women learn by their mid-twenties not to mistake for passionate vulnerability, his persona is merely a cubist rendering of romantic obsession?

Wunderkind formalist, metronomic heart
photo: Ewen Spencer
Wunderkind formalist, metronomic heart

Sorry, Ms. Hayworth—he is for real. White no longer dances around his faux-chivalrous urges with the same passive-aggressive agility that made White Blood Cells such an achingly hopeful breakup album. Sometimes his bitterness crystallizes into a pithy phrase like "You think not telling is the same as not lying, don't you?" Sometimes he's not even bitter—"My Doorbell" is as charming as solo McCartney always should've been. But throughout he amplifies his pain to lure you inward, as though true love might blossom out of a sympathy fuck. Maybe it will. But I'll be damned if he's taking my sister canoeing in Brazil.

Good thing I don't have a sister then, because White splatters his soul atop his two-toned arrangements of raw power and folksy rudiment too cannily for me to stop listening: Until we boys get our own Courtney Love, he's the most calculated yet visceral exemplar of self-laceration in his gender class. Meanwhile, White's own simulated sibling, who happens to be his ex-wife, is entrusted with the album's hidden moral, a 32-second warning to girls. "Don't just succumb to the wishes of your brothers," Meg cautions. "You need to know the difference between a father and lover." Tell it, sis: Moody artsy types can be a blast to fool around with. But once they start talking "forever," maybe it's time to pack up your toothbrush and birth control, change your cell number, and find someone who'll remember to pick the kids up from soccer practice. Maybe that nice Keith Urban is still unhitched.

 
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