Success has made a failure of our home. Loretta Lynn said that; Elvis Costello covered it once. (Sometime later, somebody changed the words to “the mo money we come across, the mo problems we see.”) Costello also covered “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” once. As do, on their new Elephant album, the White Stripes—who like Loretta Lynn so much they dedicated their previous album to her, and are bringing her to Hammerstein Ballroom this Saturday.
The White Stripes open Elephant with a really paranoid song—paranoid about groupies, or imitators, or sycophants. Or somebody. “I’m gonna fight ’em off . . . They’re gonna rip it off.” Slow chords, blues notes, muffled voice eventually climbing in pitch. Ominous sound, tense and bothered. Slowed-down Little Richard in the chorus. Words about how a seven-nation army, which is to say a nation of millions, couldn’t hold Jack White back. He wants to escape from fame, run away to Wichita. (Same state as Loretta’s beloved Topeka, where one is a toddlin’, one is a crawlin’, and one’s on the way.) A corny old travails-of-stardom song. It’s the radio single right now, and it doesn’t say what the seven nations are. Which seems rather sneaky, given the War With No Allies.
Anyway, now that the White Stripes are in a bigger room, they might not know what to do, and they might have to think of how they got started, sitting in their little room. So in “Seven Nation Army,” and later in “The Hardest Button to Button,” they deal with it. The latter’s a boogie, a very antisocial one. And a marriage-rocker to boot—everything the White Stripes do best. “Now we’re a family/And we’re alright now/We got money and a little place to fight now.” The room gets bigger. “It was 1981/We named him Baby/He had a toothache/He started crying/It sounded like an earthquake.”
It’s gotta start right in your own backyard. Dion DiMucci said that, in a song about losing his kids and wife to drink and drugs. And the White Stripes, Detroit domestics that they deep-down are, sing about backyards a lot. “The Hardest Button to Button” and “Little Acorns,” which follows it on Elephant, are more vacant-lot ecology, more dead leaves and dirty ground to help us look at all the bugs we found. But when the acorn song opens with a moral fable about a squirrel saving up nuts for winter, I’m thinking it’s about the Stripes preparing for their future. Which they should.
Besides being an out-of-left-field smash (which thus suggests that Clear Channel’s war-mongering assholes might not be as monolithic as doomsayers say) and birthing some of history’s shortest AOR hits, 2001’s White Blood Cells was thematically of a piece, distinguished by Mr. and Mrs. Used to Be’s best songwriting ever, much of it conceivably autobiographical. Which is to say it was, in some ways, a classic D-I-V-O-R-C-E LP in the Fleetwood Mac/X/Human Switchboard/Richard and Linda Thompson/Womack and Womack tradition. You get married in a big cathedral by a priest and if I’m the man you love the most you can say “I do” at least, but it’s getting harder to find a gentleman to stimulate devotion. I read it all as Jack being more committed to the union forever and Meg not being able to help how a woman feels when the tingle becomes a chill. But art can lie, of course.
For instance: More and more, I’m convinced Jack is basically a one-man band. Meg, as wonderful a person as she seems to be, is an entirely replaceable drummer—musically, at least, if not conceptually. On Elephant, she fills in space competently enough when the guitar stops, but otherwise I forget she’s even there. Though then again, I never understood why people make a big deal about Dave Grohl or Janet Weiss (neither of whom can swing a 16th note to save their lives), so maybe my standards are too high. But there are definitely garage-revival bands out there who dance like White Stripes don’t—a half-dozen minimum in Detroit alone, and that’s not even counting Jack’s pals Electric Six covering Roxy Music’s “Street Life” at the Bowery Ballroom last week. Better yet, play any six Elephant songs next to the half-dozen that end ZZ Top’s Mescalero, which hits the stores this week, and tell me which band’s got the funk. (Hint: The one with the bass player.) All of which, may I remind you, matters, since garage rock is about how nobody can do the shingaling like I do as much as it’s about how sometimes good guys don’t wear white. Thing is, Meg looks so cool. And it’s beyond cool that my 13-year-old drummer daughter Cordelia wears pigtails like her sometimes, and has the White Stripes’ photo framed in her room. But especially given how much White Stripes sound more like Led Zeppelin than like anybody else, Meg’s got no brontosaur Bonham stomp at all. And not much propulsive Moe Tucker pulse, either. And when her voice sneaks out of a couple Elephant tracks, it’s even blanker than her drums and her facial expressions. Somehow, across the board, she’s figured out how to come off charmingly blank, which is to her credit. But mostly what her musical anonymity proves is that Jack White is one heckuva rhythm guitarist. And singer, too.
In “Little Acorns,” he gives us a huge downbound guitar stutter, and vocal hiccups like if Herman’s Hermits covered “D’Yer Mak’er.” He’s got this high, glammy vibrato, almost comical—intentionally tweedledee frilly and fey. (And has anybody noticed his increasing visual resemblance to Michael Jackson? OK, never mind.) So maybe “Black Math” on Elephant is a black mass, lisped. Unless it’s math-rock gone blues. Killer divebomb fuzztone repetition, faster and faster, deeper and deeper, more and more pissed; Jack’s learned over the course of four albums how to be heavy without being sluggish. He’s developed this unusual knack for getting an extremely grimy slide sound into an extremely pretty pop song, for letting thick gangliations coalesce into melody, for taking cool explorations within a totally tight framework, for making his six-string ring like Salvation Army horns. He stated his aesthetic philosophy early on: “Crumble crumble/The bag is brown/Rip up the paper/To hear a sound/Pick up the pieces/Off the ground.” His guitar style comes out of Jeff Beck, Roger McGuinn, Tom Verlaine, Neil Young, Angus Young. So whippersnappers who compare his band to Violent Femmes make no more sense than ones who say he’s Jon Spencer.
Like all great garage-rock bands, White Stripes are omnivorous in their cover versions: Blind Willie Johnson, Bob Dylan (“One More Cup of Coffee,” a couple years before Robert Plant covered it—on an Upper Peninsula road trip last summer, my kids got sick of me playing both versions in the car), Dolly Parton, the Kinks, the Premiers’ “Farmer John,” the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Teenage Head,” Captain Beefheart’s “Ashtray Heart,” Robert Johnson via the Stones, now Dionne Warwick. On Elephant, “Hyptonize” might be my favorite song just ’cause it’s the best dance track, not to mention a blatant Xerox of some famously distorted ’60s proto-punk pebble if not nugget, though damned if I can figure out which one. And like any good garage album, Elephant has more than its fair share of it-ain’t-me-you’re-looking-for-babe don’t-hang-around-’cause-two’s-a-crowd flare-ups: “The Air Near My Fingers,” whose riff is pure “Wild Thing”/”More Than a Feeling”/”Smells Like Teen Spirit”; the even meaner “There’s No Home for You Here,” Jack in his verbosely faux-proper Ray Davies mode: “I’m only waiting for the proper time to tell you that it’s impossible to get along with you.” Massed, churchy chorus; muffled, maybe backward hook hinting at psychedelia like any antsy suburban hoodlums circa 1966. Waking up for breakfast, taking pictures, throwing garbage, breaking bottles, lighting matches: mental refuse of a pointless relationship.
By now, you got your white stripes on black zebras, your black stripes on white zebras, your black and white stripes on invisible zebras, and your invisible stripes on black and white zebras, and how can you tell the difference? Which is to say it just might be pointless to make qualitative distinctions between White Stripes albums—their 1999 debut, where Jack was still a bit too obsessed with the Anthology of American Folk Music, and from back when he hadn’t quite figured out yet how to make his blues pop enough, is barely a notch below the later three, which are all too close to call. Like all those TRL teens, I assume White Blood Cells will always be my first pick because it’s the first one I ever heard. But all the hardcore garage hipsters I know who heard De Stijl first prefer that one. And in the long run Elephant may be no different.
Certain facets are missed on the new one, though. The second side (on the vinyl version, sent to critics back in February to thwart downloads, which didn’t work) is the dullest sequence they’ve put together since tracks five through 11 on their debut. There’s nothing as dark as the 300 people living out in West Virginia who ended White Blood Cells (and who always made me think of “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”), and nothing as beautiful as the jousting-faire folk-rock of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” or “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known,” and no stompin’-our-feet-on-the-wooden-boards barn-dance beats worthy of “Hotel Yorba.” Could use more Dock Boggs country-blues dirt, too, about how your Southern can is mine in the mornin’ and when I find you mama you’ll feel my hand (and maybe lose your heart on the burning sand) and if I catch you in the heart of town gonna make you moan like a graveyard hound. I mean, Jack’s sounding increasingly precious in interviews, spouting confused aesthetic theories that he’d stated more succinctly way back when he named De Stijl after an art movement built on straight lines and primary colors. And now he’s babbling about the return of the gentleman and sweetheart like he’s Beck’s little Delta brother. But fact is, some of his sexiest songs have never been gentlemanly at all—and what most saves Elephant from drowning in impending professionalism isn’t good manners, it’s hostile boogies like “Ball and Biscuit”: very deliberate, all evil boll-weevil eight-bar George Thorogood have-love-will-travel backdoor-man jellyroll prowess, with ripping Crazy Horse headbangs thrusting deep inside. “Let’s have a bawwwl, girl, and take our sweet little time about it.” Read about him in the paper, or just ask your girlfriends, ’cause they already know. Not as heavy a heffalump stampede as Mastodon or Mammoth Volume, maybe, but at least as heavy as Black Keys.
So while Elephant may not be the subspecies of pachyderm that never forgets, it’s at least the kind where you’ll be as clueless as all those blind guys from India if you only concentrate on its tusks or tail. And if it’s got a big trunk, let me search it. Side two really does worry me, too. To wit: (1) “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself,” never one of Bacharach-David’s (or Warwick’s) best songs. Once presaged Elvis Costello’s own eternal descent into meaningless good taste. (2) “In the Cold Cold Night.” Sung cold and detached, by Meg. Sounds merely spare and retro—not a big stretch from what’s wrong with Adult Alternative Radio. You could imagine it on a Nick Hornby soundtrack; that’s how “pure” it is. (3) “I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart.” Ornate, dainty little chamber-room figure eights. Yet another forlorn bid for the Aimee/Norah/O Brother crowd, which I hope White Stripes get (though if Beck’s mellow record didn’t even get him there, good luck). Sitting in her backyard (see?!) for hours, and Mama baked a cake. A couple albums ago, Jack broke rules just so a cute classmate would notice him; now he’s inclined to finish high school (and turn cartwheels) for the same reason. He wants to be the kind of guy who tries to win you over. (4) “You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket.” Not as good a boy-to-boy advice song as “Don’t Mug Yourself” by the Streets. Again, slow and atmospheric and trying hard to be romantic, not in an especially coherent way. Jack’s fine writing about commitment issues, but even when he hits his generally convincing high register here, he never quite engages.
He can be a real stick-in-the-mud, you know? At least when it’s convenient for him. But then again, his conservative bent—his smelling a rat around little brats who disrespect their parents, his memories of elementary school as a warm safe place where as a child he’d hide, his know-nothing complaints about hip-hop being harmful to children and other living things—is frequently quite commendable; even comparable to the aggressively reactionary whiteness of punks back during disco. He can be a real sweetheart, too, as you might’ve noticed—in his old back-to-school songs, for instance, or that one where he told his little apple blossom to put her troubles in a little pile. And he’s so straightforward, so unpoetic and vernacular in his language, and that’s absolutely rare now. Elephant‘s finale is a jovially warmhearted, self-deprecating thing called “Well It’s True That We Love One Another,” where Holly Golightly of Brit post-pub cult heroines Thee Headcoatees calls him by his true name (shades of his fellow Detroit sometime-prude Marshall Mathers, who also knows that white blood sells): “I love Jack White like a little brother.” Stuff about phone numbers written in the back of Bibles, and Meg sounding even more blank and bored up against Holly, which only makes it cuter when she confesses how Jack really bugs her. The song’s jolly-good-cup-o’-tea coda is the sweetest way a Top 10 album has ended in, like, forever. And when Jack requests some English lovin’, Holly says if she does that she’ll have one in the oven. I’m expected, she’s expecting. One’s on the way.