By: Eric Greenwood
Miraculously untainted by severe over-exposure, The White Stripes return with another blistering set of mock-blues through the eyes of two pasty white-faced Goths from Detroit in candy stripe drag. Musically, Elephant is just as raw and spontaneous as it would have been had no one given two shits about the duo's breakthrough album, White Blood Cells. Lyrically, however, Jack White acknowledges some of the effects of fame and fortune with hints of paranoia and defensive aggression, but these moments are few and far between the searing, squawking guitar solos that will blow the hair clear off your head.
White's main concern is not his stature in any rock and roll climate, indie or otherwise, but, rather, the rock and roll itself. Elephant is an old fashioned rock record- the kind almost no band dares even try to make anymore for fear of being trampled with 'retread' accusations. But this is a challenge White clearly yearns for, as he's confident that his guitar chops are on par with the ghosts of legendary blues-men past. Infused with disingenuous bravado, white-boy blues, and a cataclysmic urgency, Elephant is a mass of contradictions, wherein Jack White struts his guitar machismo while simultaneously yearning for his mother's love.
Eschewing any hint of technology, The White Stripes used strictly vintage instruments in the two-week studio stint in London it took to create Elephant (nothing created post-1963, thank you very much) and opted for vinyl copies of its promotional material, just to be consistent. It's a strange irony, then, that the pirated copies being downloaded weeks before its official release contained the crackle and hiss of vinyl. Such attention to detail pays off, though, as Elephant is a startlingly dark and consistent record, incorporating frequencies never before heard on a White Stripes album.
The slinky bass line that opens "Seven Nation Army" is actually just a guitar fed through an old octave pedal, but it seduces all the same. And while Meg White is certainly not running for John Bonham any time soon, her self-consciously minimal style allows more room for Jack White's crazed guitar theatrics. It's a subtle anthem, hypnotic in its uniform pulse yet frantic in its shrill aggression and an outstanding opener. "Black Math" explores familiar garage rock territory but with explosive results. White sounds truly possessed in his manic delivery, and the guitar is as crunchy as it is jaunty. Then, suddenly, Queen enters the list of influences on the "Dead Leaves On The Dirty Ground" rewrite, "There's No Home For You Here", with its wall of choral Jack Whites and vitriolic guitar.
Covering Dusty Springfield would seem a calculatedly kitsch move for a band like The White Stripes, but the version of "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" is truly stunning. White's ability to sound plaintive and sincere one moment and then absolutely out of his mind the next takes the song to unexpected places. Much like the band's gut-punching version of Dolly Parton's "Jolene", this cover almost outshines the original. Allowing Meg White to sing unaccompanied wouldn't behoove many bands' stature, but what she lacks in talent she makes up for with unassuming charm, making "In The Cold, Cold Night" not only palatable but also somewhat hard to resist.
Despite all the showiness inherent to The White Stripes' schtick, Jack White's ballads always manage to reveal a battered heart. He can shift gears effortlessly, pulling you into his complicated quest for love, as on the innocently affecting "I Want To Be The Boy", in which White attempts to woo a girl's mother in vain. Better still is the lovely "You've Got Her In Your Pocket", which seems gentle and sweet on the surface with its light acoustic strumming and plaintive singing but exposes a somewhat sinister agenda at its core. White's delivery is so convincing you'll barely notice his disturbing point of view ("I want to keep you in my pocket/where there's no way out"), but that's a testament to his skillful songwriting.
Sometimes White lays on the cocksure blues act a little thickly. "Ball And A Biscuit" drags on far too long, as White waxes incoherently about his masculinity, but the shit-ripping guitar interludes between the verses make it worth suffering through. White's explosive tangents reveal a prowess that almost justifies such shameless braggadocio. Who knew this guy could play like this? Continuing Elephant's quest for total domination of your accolades is the foot stomping "The Hardest Button To Button", the opening riff of which recalls a sped-up version of the Talking Head's "Psycho Killer." And "Little Acorns" lays a murderous sludge-metal riff over White's sexually charged silliness, where he intones, "be like the squirrel" and makes it sound like a clever idea.
It's easy to hate The White Stripes because one can hardly escape them these days, but Elephant is one of those once in a blue moon records that actually lives up to its hype. There's little fat to cut, as every single song proves its worthiness in one way or another. I had crazy expectations for this album and was sorely disappointed at first. But after weeks of returning to it, I finally understood where it was coming from, and now I can't leave it alone.