The first time I spun Elephant, the new album by boy/girl sensation The White Stripes, a part of my personality became very clear to me. Frankly, I'm a jerk. I realized this the moment I heard the first note of the first song (which is also the first single) on the album. I realized this because when I heard that note, I turned the album off and didn't listen to it for another few days. I did this not because it was a particularly grating or badly played note, or a note somehow unworthy of attention. I did it because that note was a full octave lower than anything the White Stripes have ever played. The note was coming from a bass, and that was more than I could deal with.
The Detroit two-piece has incorporated this new element to their music (if only sporadically), and while the diehard fans may have been turned off by it at first, upon reflection, diehard fans are stupid. As a matter of fact, those "I knew them before anyone else did" indie brats should stop whining about this album, because oh boy is it great.
Elephant is darker and heavier than anything that the Stripes have ever done before. Miles away from the sunshine fun of "You're Pretty Good Looking" or "Fell in Love With a Girl," Jack and Meg White deliver to us instead such uplifting tunes as "There's No Home For You Here" and "In the Cold Cold Night" (sung by Meg).
Where in the past the peppermint duo gave us tasty treats that went down like candy, this time they've decided to truly get in touch with their blues roots and have fused their songs with something they've never showed any interest in before: metal.
Yes, metal. As a matter of fact, the solos strewn throughout this album sound a lot more like Jimmy Page than T-Bone walker, and I don't think I've ever heard a bluesman sing with the newfound falsetto that Jack has adopted for almost every one of Elephant's songs.
To be clear, it's not so far removed from the White Stripes fare that we've been treated to before. It's also not all that surprising that the Stripes have changed their sound again (2000's White Blood Cells sounded nothing at all like the preceding album, De Stijl). What is surprising is just how dark, driving and truly soulful this album is.
The first song sets up the stage on which the rest of the album plays. An ominous bass line opens up to a driving drumbeat. Jack White's manic falsetto joins the two instruments, and soon the whole song explodes into a frenzy of frenetic guitar and yelping. By the time the song is finished, it's clear that these new Stripes ain't as happy as they used to be.
The Stripes don't give you any time for this realization to set in, however, because before you know it, they're bombarding you with the rapid-fire garage punk explosion that is "Black Math." The song is a punch in the gut, leaving you winded by its speed and ferocity. Just when it feels like it may not be possible to survive, "Black Math" slows down, turning into a slow, sludgy, weird and insane metal tune with Jack singing like a man who's been committed. The break doesn't last long, though, and soon it reverts back to its original tempo, just in time for the first scorching solo of the album. Before you can say "what the h-e-double hockey sticks," though, it ends.
Thankfully the next song is slower, but "There's No Home For You Here's" weird harmonies, slow tempo and distressing lyrics actually make it more intense than its predecessor. That old head's really ready to explode at the end of this monsterpiece when the Stripes take a break.
Track four is a cover. Originally written by Burt Bacharach, you'd never know it after it gets the Jack White treatment. While rife with huge power chords and sludge, this one just doesn't sound quite as scary. Maybe at this point I'd just resigned myself to the fact that Jack needs psychological help quickly, so his yelping's not as much of a surprise as before. Regardless, the song is something of a respite after the amazing intensity of the first three cuts.
After Burt, we get Meg. For the first time in recorded history, Meg treats us to her voice, and it's surprisingly good. It seems like the last four songs tired out the Stripes, because "In the Cold, Cold, Night" is nearly acoustic, without all the guitar histrionics that we've been treated to thus far. This song is just creepy instead of full-blown terrifying.
The next couple of songs are obviously the soft tracks. "I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother's Heart" is centered around a piano and sounds like it would fit right in on White Blood Cells. "You've Got Her in Your Pocket" is a pretty acoustic track and also the eeriest song on the album. Jack gets jealous about his girl and talks about how he can keep her in his pocket, "where there's no way out." Whoa.
After "Pocket," the album starts to build back up to a frenzy. The next two tracks are the most obviously blues-influenced numbers. "Ball and Biscuit" is basically an extended blues jam, and "The Hardest Button to Button" starts out sounding a lot like "Seven Nation Army" but ends up sounding more like the Stooges trying to play a song written in the Mississippi delta.
Next is "Little Acorns," a four-minute guitar freak-out that silences all those who say that Jack White doesn't know how to play the twanger. "Acorns" is followed by "Fell in Love With a Girl's" big brother, "Hypnotize." At this point (three tracks from the end), things are starting to look brighter. "The Air Near My Fingers" sounds like a love song, even if it's a twisted, Jack White love song. But of course, this is the calm before the storm. "Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine" is the album's climax. This song sounds like "Black Math," only more intense. It's a two-minute orgy of fast guitars, thumping drums and squealing. By the end of the song, it's clear that the album can't go any farther.
Indeed it doesn't. "Well It's True That We Love One Another" is the first truly lighthearted track on Elephant. Featuring guest singer Holly Golightly, we are left with the notion that Jack and Meg really do love one another. That's nice, but clearly a lie. This album is too freaky, thick and draining to possibly be an ode to love.
What inspired the insanity isn't clear. Maybe it was the move to a major label (British V2 Records), or the access to high-quality recording equipment. Even though this album was supposedly recorded entirely on pre-1970's equipment, it sounds worlds away from anything else the duo has recorded. The bass drum finally thumps and the guitars are fuzzier than ever.
Regardless, the fact is that Elephant is incredible. It is a huge leap forward for the peppermint-colored couple and it makes my mouth water for the future.
Josh Scannell. Josh Scannell is an 11th grader at Blair High School. He is a page editor on the Silver Chips staff. When not working, he enjoys listening to, reading about, watching and playing music. He also enjoys a good movie and hanging out with his friends. More »