Four years after they broke out of Detroit and into the world’s imaginations, The White Stripes still don’t do things like other bands. Compare ‘Get Behind Me Satan’ to ‘X&Y’, which will be released the same day (and no doubt commercially dwarf the Stripes’ effort). Coldplay have been faffing around with their album for the last six months and talking about it for far longer, but ‘Get Behind Me Satan’ didn’t even exist before March, when it was recorded in a mere two weeks, none of the songs having been completely written beforehand. The swiftness of ‘Satan’’s appearance has taken the music industry by surprise (lead single ‘Blue Orchid’ was officially released on iTunes a mere two weeks after it was finished), especially given that 2003’s ‘Elephant’ album sat on the shelf for an entire year before its keeper, Jack White, saw fit to allow it out.
The reasons for such haste will have to remain a mystery for now, as the only interview The White Stripes have given about ‘Get Behind Me Satan’ is a mysterious dialogue between the two of them given out as part of the press pack, whose aim – in typical White Stripes style – seems to be to tease and confuse rather than to explain. In among various red herrings, like Meg asking Jack “Are these songs about you? …I thought maybe you made an exception after coming out of the closet”, we learn (or do we?) that “this album was cursed when we started, and then suddenly came around near the end”, that Jack, who produced it, thinks “it’s our most dense sounding record yet” and that on it, Jack’s voice “sounds really high… like the old days.”
It certainly sounds high on ‘Blue Orchid’, the single and first track. Presumably not named after the Croydon discotheque, ‘Blue Orchid’ is a falsetto freakout, minimal even by White Stripes standards, whose relentlessly repetitive fuzz guitar riff weirdly calls to mind the latest Daft Punk album. Unlike the Liam Watson-produced ‘Elephant’, which famously used no technology made after 1965 and sounded almost live, ‘Blue Orchid’ displays its artificiality as brazenly as the flower of the title, with sparse but dramatic production trickery including backwards singing, stereo panning and the song ending in mid note. It’s a baffling introduction to a very strange album, which shreds the old White Stripes rulebook (no bass, just guitar and drums) and pushes into territories way beyond the blues and rock of their previous four records. And while there are no synths, or seventy-piece orchestras, the arrangements of ‘Get Behind Me Satan’ are enough of a departure to contradict substantially what Jack White told NME last year. He said, “the aesthetics, and the methods we use, and the instrumentation have always been purposely constrictive. It’d be ridiculous for us to now change it and employ a five-piece orchestra. People want us to do that because it’s the easy way out. I think it’s tougher to stay in the box and work.”
‘Get Behind Me Satan’ sees The White Stripes lifting the lid on their box. The general lack of guitar is the first, most startling thing about it. As almost unarguably the best guitar player of his generation, it’s a shock when you realise that Jack White has based only three (including ‘Blue Orchid’) of the thirteen tracks here on the bedrock of his squalling ’64 Ward’s Airline guitar. ‘Instinct Blues’ is this album’s equivalent of ‘Hello Operator’ or ‘Ball And Biscuit’, but with enough unsettling touches to make it obvious that while that (obvious tunes, virtuoso swagger) was then, this (a very loose melodic structure, a strange warm-up at the beginning) is now.
Then there’s ‘The Wreck’, an equally noisy track with one of the album’s many paranoid and accusatory lyrics, Jack demanding “You think not telling’s the same as not lying, don’t you?” Of course, the fact that there are three tracks with guitars may well be significant, three being an important number in White Stripes mythology (their Detroit studio – where this was recorded – is called Third Man; they only wear three colours, red, white and black; and until now their records contained only three instruments, guitar, piano and drums). As ever, Jack’s not telling.
The deeper you get into ‘Get Behind Me Satan’, the more the plot thickens. Instead of guitar, it’s pummelling piano that colours the rest of the album. ‘My Doorbell’ uses the twin percussive attack of piano and drums to create the funkiest tune The White Stripes have ever put their name to, Jack almost rapping the tongue-twisting chorus and adding old school soul interjections like “Ride it home, yeah”, to sizzling and salacious effect. ‘The Denial Twist’ adds a bass guitar for depth, making a song melodically reminiscent of ‘Fell In Love With A Girl’ much heavier than a mere re-tread. Then there’s the standout track, ‘Take, Take, Take’. By far the most lavishly orchestrated record The White Stripes have made (there’s piano, acoustic guitar and a range of percussion including tympani in there), its lyric comes across like a White Stripes take on ‘Stan’, by fellow Detroit citizen Eminem. A couple of years ago, Jack White told an American magazine how he envied the less intrusive fame old school stars like Frank Sinatra enjoyed in the Fifties, and that clearly influenced this lyric, in which a fan pesters Forties film siren Rita Hayworth in a “seedy” bar. He asks her for an autograph, which she gives him, kissing the envelope, but then is outraged when she declines to allow him to have his photograph taken with her. “She didn’t even care/That I was even there/What a horrible feeling” spits Jack as the piano thumps to the song’s conclusion. The chorus (“take! Take! Take!”), meanwhile, seems to give away Jack’s true feelings about what obsessive fan worship feels like to its object. It’s brilliantly drawn and utterly gripping.
Things get even further out on tracks like ‘The Nurse’, where murmuring vocals and exotic marimba (playing what initially – and unfortunately – sounds like the theme from ‘Rugrats’) are stabbed by sudden, violent interjections of drums and guitar. ‘As Ugly As I Seem’ has a meditative quality reminiscent of The White Album’s quieter moments, while ‘White Moon’’s traditional ballad structure and dreamily narcotic feeling carry some of the strangest lyrics Jack White’s ever written (“Probosocial’s a word/And the word is the bird/That flew through the herd in the snow”). Country music also gets a fair representation, ‘Little Ghost’ being fiddle-driven hillbilly, and the closing ‘I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)’ a rousing waltz which Jack’s last collaborator Loretta Lynn would have no problem singing, after a few lyrical tweaks at least. A mention is also due to the track Meg sings, ‘Panic Manipulation’, which at 38 seconds still manages to spook with the lyric “You need to know the difference between a father and a lover”, continuing a theme – incest, to put it bluntly – with which The White Stripes have always toyed.
It all adds up to an initially disorientating listen, since the only traditional-sounding White Stripes tracks are the bluesy ‘Forever For Her (Is Over For Me)’ and the aforementioned ‘Instinct Blues’. The Led Zep and Queen influences paraded on ‘Elephant’ have been traded in for Fifties exotica (thanks to heavy use of the marimba) and stuff that defies genre altogether. The lyrics are also overwhelmingly dark, from the paranoia of ‘The Nurse’ (in which Jack warns “The one that you’re trusting’s suspiciously dusting the sill” – a rare White Stripes drug reference?) to the contemptuous kiss off to former lovers in ‘I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)’. A literalist would suppose that the last two years have seen Jack White have a tough time of it in love and work, what with Renee, Jason and all – but then they wouldn’t have read the press release, in which Jack describes ‘Get Behind Me Satan’ as an exploration of “characters and the ideal of truth”.
O (i)Kay(i). So what’s the Satan Jack White’s putting behind him, then? If it’s the temptation of artistic complacency bought on by wealth and fame, then he’s cast it right to the outer darkness. This is a very brave record, but ultimately one which, after many listens, becomes as beguiling and seductive as old Nick himself. In a world of fakers, careerists and time-servers, The White Stripes are the real, strange, artistic deal. It’ll be a long time before Jack and Meg sell their souls.