On Second Thought: The White Stripes – Elephant (2003)

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I really wanted to not fall for it. I really wanted to be able to stand back and scoff at it. I’d done so for a while, very successfully. And in the end, what did I do? I went and bought the White Stripes’ Elephant.

And I really enjoyed it.

I have a hard time getting involved in anything while the hype-machine is in heavy operation — which was certainly the case for the White Stripes around the time of this album’s release. The problem, I find, is that a “new thing” is a fairly fragile entity in my world, and as much as I enjoy it, it may not take much to knock it out of my favor. Overhearing a single song can do it. The catchy hook being hung on every MTV ad can do it, having been gutted from the song as a sort of icon. Just hearing too much, too much about the band can do it — the everywhere-I-turn, there-they-are phenomenon is particularly lethal.

I admitted to myself a long time ago that there might be something in the White Stripes for me to enjoy. I hold an love of the scratchy, lo-fi, high-energy rock of the late 1960s — so when I started hearing more and more about this new wave of bands emulating that sound, I was immediately intrigued. Then MTV latched onto it. Even if they wouldn’t show the videos, they sure liked to talk about them a lot. It was enough to put me off of them for a while. These bands needed to battle it out for a while and I needed to let the hype machines of each die down a little before I dove in on any of them. For good music, I can wait.

Wait, I did. It was hard to escape the constant barrage of news on music sites about work on this Stripes’ album, accompanied by the usual mention of Jack White’s possible-sister/possible-ex-wife Meg. The latter is what really caught my attention. It’s not the fact that some odd relationship between the two was being used as cannon-fodder for the gossip columnists, it’s the fact that Jack White continued to simply let it run its course — with a knowing smile. It’s obvious that the truth was that this is just a fun joke he’s content to leave be. His handling of what could be a key publicity generator (bad publicity being as good as — or better than — good publicity, after all) was what really intrigued me. It was that knowing smile — never really seen but heard, or understood, in every statement the band has put forth.

What sold me in the end was not hearing the album but finding a cache of live bootlegs that I quickly downloaded. I spent a few weeks listening to bits of each, every time hearing something that hooked me a little bit more. What was so different about the Stripes that even jaded I would give in?

There was a knowing swagger informing every track, every lick. The White Stripes played a blend of garage-derived blues-rock that was well-tread by the early Led Zeppelin, but has rarely been successfully resurrected since. The key was that the Stripes weren’t simply in this to make a buck or to gain fame. Jack White sang with a weight fitting of the blues, but never gave in to the unfortunate tendency most rock groups have when approaching the blues — that the blues is primarily sad. The blues is anything but sad, and is in fact a celebration of sorts — a celebration grown from the fertile soil of pain.

Rock tends to misread the blues as simply a reading of one’s worst moments, and that the only way to present them is with the most down and depressing of presentations possible. A blues man picks up his instrument, sings his song, in order to set it all free, and in doing so looks for others feeling the same way. The blues is the sound of everyman looking for a compassionate soul with whom to share his sorrows, so as to be stronger for it — together. The blues in rock has nearly always resorted to laying it all down for you, the listener — not in an effort to join together with you but to tell you how bad he’s had it.

The White Stripes got this. They may have been rock, and Jack White was clearly feeling the blues, but he also clearly wanted to hear you say you felt it, too.

The White Stripes worked because the music wasn’t condescending. Jack White’s knowing smile was present through every moment of the album, but never became an insulting smirk. It’s not that the music was particularly groundbreaking or new — there were countless riffs lifted out of songs that sat on the end of my tongue, yet I never felt like the Stripes were just copping great riffs of the past. Good artists copy, it has been said, and great artists steal. The White Stripes stole: Jimmy Page’s slippery blues riffs were everywhere, and I even heard a tiny, tiny bit of Geddy Lee from Rush during a quiet acoustic moment from 2112, in the way Jack White phrased the very end of the verses in “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket.” (I don’t doubt the latter will confound any Stripes fans who are not Rush fans. Just believe me.) Not to mention slight nods to early Metallica and Kiss in “Black Math.”

None of these were presented as if to convince the listener that they were new. They existed to confirm the musical pedigree that the White Stripes were bred from. The blues, after all, has never been about forging a new path, but simply connecting through a shared knowledge or experience. The White Stripes used what had come before them to make a further connection — like saying “you know these riffs from somewhere, and now you know us … because you know where we came from.”

Unlike before, I was suddenly no longer as concerned about where they came from – so much as where they were going next.

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Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Tom Johnson
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