Some people labour under the misconception that, for Jack White, The White Stripes are a bit of a drag; a self-set challenge to make rock’n’roll that’s as sexually charged, ornately textured and brilliantly primal as humanly possible, all the while with one hand tied behind his back. It’s certainly no stretch to envision White as the perennial martyr to his own genius; The White Stripes are, after all, a band defined by their supposed limitations – it’s what made them so unique in the first place. So, while Matt Bellamy busies himself trying to extract a C note from the sound of a jet engine exploding, The White Stripes must make do with three meagre instruments – one of which they haven’t even learned to play properly. When they convene every couple of years to record a new album, they do it on analogue gear so outdated, even Betamax calls it its bitch. Not only that, but they do it quick, too – a couple of weeks in a rudimentary studio at most. And that’s just the way it is. Trust us when we say it’s not how the next Coldplay album will be made. Jack himself would never admit it, but from the outside looking in, it often appears as though The White Stripes’ dogmatic adherence to their own manifesto is one big concession to other, lesser mortals in the vain hope that they might be able to keep up.
Bollocks. The White Stripes are actually the exact opposite. When the long-fabled Raconteurs record finally surfaced last year, it was met with much hoopla about Jack finally freeing himself from the rigid rules of the day job and whetting his whistle with previously unheard-of excesses such as bass players, competent drumming and tartan trousers. There was even talk of not returning to the day job at all. Aside from the odd flash of inspiration, however – ‘Broken Boy Soldier’’s hypnotic, stack-heeled voodoo stew and the smoky, slow-burning blues workout of ‘Blue Veins’ come to mind – it was, disappointingly, Just Another Album. Devoid of The White Stripes’ subtle artistry and eccentric tangents, it sounded much like what it was; four men making music for the sake of it.
No, what people fail to realise is that it’s always been the day job that’s Jack’s real passion. The White Stripes are more than just a band, they’re a grand design in perpetual progress, always messing with their sound and your expectations, yet staying true to the original vision. From the actual writing and recording process to the minutiae of deciding which outlandish style of clothing should define the album, every White Stripes record is imbued with the kind of rich attention to detail that makes a mockery of its seemingly-carefree creation.
So it was on their eponymous 1999 debut, so it is with ‘Icky Thump’. Their sixth and second-longest album, it was recorded over the course of a practically-gargantuan three weeks in Nashville’s Blackbird Studio, and addresses the problem most people had with its predecessor by dispensing with the sombre piano balladry and replacing it with snarling, hellbound guitars and a healthy dollop of gleeful perversity.
That much, of course, is evident from the title track, which by now you’re surely familiar with. Prefixed by an ominous synthesizer march that sounds as if it’s being played by a man with stumps instead of hands, ‘Icky Thump’ is, from the off, a downright weird song. Formed from a stream-of-consciousness verse about hangovers, redheaded señoritas and white America (“Nothing better to do?/Why don’t you kick yourself out?/You’re an immigrant too”) clumsily welded on to a Jimmy Page riff of leviathan proportion – which appears to have no idea what it’s doing or why it’s there – it’s not the most obvious single you’ll ever hear, but it gradually wins you round, to the point where you’ll find yourself actually looking forward to the bit that sounds like a Dalek committing suicide, instead of having to pop two Valium to cope with the insanity of it all.
Much of what follows is like this – and we haven’t even started on the backwards bagpipes yet. But ‘Icky Thump’’s little idiosyncracies never get in the way of the actual songs, which, predictably enough, are brilliant. ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told)’ is a case in point, showcasing White’s peculiar knack of writing songs so instantly and maddeningly familiar, you have to check twice to make sure someone didn’t already beat him to it. A plea from Jack to a female friend to get out of a failing relationship, declaring that “Until you see that you deserve better/I’m gonna lay right in to you”, it’s unabashedly commercial country rock, powered by almighty stabs of Hammond organ and a chorus you’ll learn word-for-word before you even get there. You’ll know what we mean when you hear it.
Then there’s ‘300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues’, which starts off all quiet and meditative with Jack “getting hard on myself/In my easy chair”, and ruminating how “I’m breaking my teeth off/Trying to bite my lip/There’s all kinds of redheaded women/That I ain’t supposed to kiss” (a reference to Jack’s post-marital temptations, perhaps?) over a taut, folky guitar riff, before the distortion pedal makes its appearance around the two-and-a-half-minute mark, and everything goes apeshit. Lyrically, however, it finds Jack in scathingly self-analytical mode, talking of “Three people in the mirror/And I’m wondering which one of them I should choose”, before grimly concluding that, “In that graveyard/I’m gonna have the shiniest pair of shoes”.
From here, things get… well, interesting. ‘Conquest’, an old and largely forgotten song by the dead and largely forgotten Corky Robbins (it was briefly popularised in the ’50s by country singer Patti Page), is re-imagined as a furious heavy metal flamenco duel, all screaming mariachi horns, and hollering, Tarzan-esque calls of “COAAAAAAANQUEEEEST!”. It’s certifiable, but it’s also pretty fucking amazing, especially when Meg starts the galloping tribal chase that drives the verse’s tale of a serial seducer having the tables turned on him. ‘Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn’ meanwhile, is Jack’s love letter to his ancestral Scottish homeland. Amid a haze of bagpipes (not actually as annoying as you might think), handclaps and li-de-li’ing, he plucks a lovelorn lament to the thistle from his mandolin. It’s an oddity, but it’s one that sucks you in before morphing into ‘St Andrew (This Battle Is In The Air)’, a song which is surely a contender for the weirdest thing The White Stripes have ever recorded. Against a background of psychedelic bagpipes, Meg’s frantic, spoken-word oration – “I’m not in my home/Where are the angels?/St Andrew, I’ve been true/The children are crying” – is a Celtic mindfuck reminiscent of The Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’ being played backwards by a pipe band. It won’t make your Top 25 Most Played on iTunes, but in a weird sort of way it bridges the album, going from the first half’s giddy experimentation to the second half’s searing, anvil-heavy blues.
‘Rag And Bone’ is the best of that (none too shabby) bunch, a darkly comical (I say comical, but I wouldn’t be laughing if I came home one day to find Jack White raking, Papa Lazarou-like, through my rubbish, while his impish klepto ex had her grubby mits all over my toilet seat) ditty that recasts Jack and Meg as wandering rag-and-bone collectors, based around a relentless blues riff and the pair’s back-and-forth bonhomie, but the wild-eyed, primordial ‘Catch Hell Blues’ isn’t far behind and ‘Little Cream Soda’ is no slouch, either.
‘I’m Slowly Turning Into You’ expands further on White’s post-marriage anxieties, detailing the stagnation of a relationship before the ultimate realisation that – hey! – being married to a supermodel isn’t all that awful and that “I dig your little laugh/And I’m loving your quick wit/I even love it when you’re faking it”. It’s classic (and incredibly noisy) White Stripes, as is ‘Effect And Cause’, a delightful return to the irreverent nature of songs such as ‘Elephant’’s ‘Well, It’s True That We Love One Another’. Joyously ramshackle and full of gleeful wordplay – “I ain’t saying I’m innocent/In fact, the reverse/ But if you’re headed to the grave/You don’t blame the hearse” – it’s on a different planet to the song that opens the album, but that’s why it works so well as a curtain closer.
‘Icky Thump’ is brilliant, there’s no way around that. We’ve come to expect nothing less from The White Stripes, but it still sends a jolt down the spine when you hear them at the very apex of their abilities. Some might consider this record a little too eclectic, zipping as it does between genres and styles like a red-and-white magpie, but it’ll take a monumental effort by any band this year to top it. If Jack White needed a challenge, he’s certainly succeeded in setting himself a bastard.