A funny thing happened when I listened to The White Stripes' sixth album, Icky Thump for the first time. I loved it. All of it. As soon as it was over, I played it again. I ended up listening to it four times that day. That doesn't happen too often. Now, I love Jack & Meg, but full disclosure - I've never been 100% satisfied with their albums as whole works. I think Jack tends to cram too many songs on their discs, which leads to me reaching for the skip button; maybe it's because he has a big songwriting ego and can't decide how to cut the fat, or maybe it's because he would feel guilty making his fans wait for only 30 minutes of music, so he loads the albums up. White Blood Cells, the best of the previous five due to the most unified themes, was weighted down by some weaker tunes in the third quarter, and that ended up overshadowing the excellent tracks buried at the album's end. And so I'm wondering what this means about my opinion of Icky Thump; is it a too-good-to-be-true situation? On the surface, I want to jump up and say it's their best album, but I think I'd disagree with myself a few years from now. It just isn't that...grand a statement... But maybe that's the point.
If there's a statement being made at all, it's that Jack wants to let loose and rock the fuck out after buttoning the top button on Get Behind Me Satan and with The Raconteurs. The classicism of his other gig gives way here to Jack's most feral howling and ferocious guitar slinging in years, with Meg pounding out earthquakes. On "Catch Hell Blues", Jack sounds like both Robert Plant and Jimmy Page at once, while Meg sounds like she recorded her drums in a cave. "Bone Broke" sounds like it could be a lost Rocket From The Crypt demo, and "Little Cream Soda" is particularly crushing. The Mexi-bombast of "Conquest" seems ripped from a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack (This statement will be repeated by countless blog and magazine writers because it's the only logical description and cultural reference for the song). There is still some lingering exploration left over from Satan, but it's mostly confined to the Celtic Folk of "Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn" and the freak-out of its supplemental interlude "St. Andrew (This Battle Is In The Air)". More apt would be the assimilation of the last album’s discoveries into these new songs, like the acoustic picking and electric piano on “300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues” or the manic organ on the title track.
The loose feel of Jack’s riffs is echoed by a more flippant attitude than most of their other albums, and that’s very attractive when looking at the CD shelf and picking out which one I want to listen to. Instead of trying to be a gentleman, Jack’s playing the rogue, dropping wisecracks like David Lee Roth in the breakdown of every great Van Halen song; the great boogie of “Rag & Bone” even features some hilarious dialogue between Jack & Meg that’s reminiscent of the VH classic, “Hot For Teacher”. You see Jack relaxing his staunch traditional image as well, even acknowledging Hip-Hop by name-dropping Technics turntables, and elsewhere, tossing off quips like “Broke as I’ll ever be” with the cool of a seasoned MC. What’s really the difference between a stray cat strut and a pimp lean anyway? In some places, Jack’s whole concept for certain songs is more playful; closer “Effect & Cause” is built around a series of punchlines that crack up their narrator mid-song.
Having moved away from Detroit (Jack to Nashville, Meg to L.A.), The Whites have cast off the bad vibes – and bruised knuckles – from a judgmental scene that started to encroach on their ability to have a good time with their music. Maybe that’s why Get Behind Me Satan was so dour. Even if you just look at that album cover, with the duo standing rigidly, back to back, looking away from each other, and compare it with the comfortable slouch and engagement of facing one another on Icky Thump's cover, the message should be clear. Kicking back, The White Stripes have made their most fun album. Time will tell if that ushers it along to being their most universally loved release, but we’ll all enjoy ourselves while we wait.
MUSIC: The White Stripes' Icky Thump
- The White Stripes website