Give The Devils Their Due

Get Behind Me Satan                                                           
The White Stripes
V2 Records, 2005

by Noah Kucij

Now that the White Stripes’ story has more or less been written, let’s go back a bit and get one thing straight.  Ten years stripes2ago, Jack and Meg made an album so daring and winning, so characteristically ballsy and yet uncharacteristically subtle, that you almost might have missed it.  You might have been dicked around by one too many rock bands who’d peaked at a 2nd or 3rd LP, and wanted to cash in your Stripes chips while they were still worth something.  Maybe you’d had it with noise, musical and otherwise, and now you were heading for the quiet woods with an iPod full of Iron and Wine.  Maybe you’d just discovered Fela Kuti and Townes Van Zandt and were on a hiatus from the newish millennium.

Lots of critics missed it, too.  Pitchfork’s Matthew Murphy gave Get Behind Me Satan a lukewarm review, and wondered if the duo had started “to strain a bit at [their] self-fashioned yoke.”   The Stripes had rushed into the studio and “granted a discouraging amount of real estate to what feel like unfinished sketches or works-in-progress.”  Plus there was “none of the sunny, innocent optimism of ‘Apple Blossom’ or ‘We’re Going to Be Friends’ to leaven Satan‘s mood.”  The Austin Chronicle’s Audra Schroeder called it a “pepperminty faux blues” and “rock nostalgia binge” that “tries putting everything from the buffet on your plate, even the Jell-O you’re not going to eat.”  Like Murphy, and like some fans, she would send the Stripes back to the kitchen to serve up another helping of what they had been — in this case, she wanted more not of the “sunny, innocent optimism,” but of the stuff that tasted “like a stripped-down version of the Stooges.”

Well, we all want things from rock bands.  And as with regular humans, we mostly just want them to be as they were (or who we imagined them to be) when we met them.  We want them to play the roles we’ve cast them in, in shows where we’re the star.  And it’s even worse if we love them.  If we love Susan, we don’t want her to move out west, get a job patrolling a National Park, and bump into her soul mate.  We want her to stay in her little room and be every bit as miserable as we are.  I believe there’s a lot of that regressive, self-serving instinct in Satan-haters, who mocked the 2005 album’s marimba-and-xylophone palette and later considered Icky Thump a return to form.  But enough armchair diagnoses.  Let’s turn to the music itself.  It’s Great, with a capital fucking G.

You’ll remember the singles, the bracing “Blue Orchid” and the stomping “My Doorbell.”  Even haters liked those, especially the latter, an undeniably catchy tune that you definitely put on the mix when you’re trying to get your 14-year old nephew into the White Stripes, right between “Hotel Yorba” and “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl)”.  But there’s so much more here to love.  “Blue Orchid”’s companion on the far side of the tracklist is the penultimate, spooky “Red Rain”; between these two, there’s enough distortion and voltage that elsewhere on the album, you’ll swear you hear electric guitar where there’s none.  “My Doorbell” is, for my money, bested by “The Denial Twist,” a similarly funky drum-and-piano romp and a syllable-perfect spitfire masterpiece.

Sonic symmetry is one reason GBMS hangs together so well, why it’s the Stripes’ most satisfying minute-by-minute listen.  Another is its vivid lyrical threads, making it feel (and again, fuck the critics) as far from a haphazard notebook-dump as it gets.  While one song admits that “if I knew what to do then I’d do it,” another snarls that “every bug that’s under your shoe…just happens to know exactly what to do.”  Nowhere do the threads pull tighter than in the side-A closer “White Moon.”  As a piano cycles through depressions and crescendos, and Jack’s voice ladles up line after line of rich subconscious stew, familiar fragments keep floating toward daylight.  One verse ends by lamenting, “Good lord, good lord, / the one I adored / and I cannot afford / is a ghost,” again conjuring the grim scenario of the gleeful “Little Ghost.”  In another, a reanimated Rita Hayworth reprises her starring role from the batshit-brilliant “Take, Take, Take.”  In a third moment, White nods backward to De Stijl’s garage-rock Zen koan: “It’s the truth and it doesn’t make a noise.”  In this atmosphere of recurring motifs and allusions, it’s hard to know how some heard a disc full of “unfinished sketches” or something akin to an indigestible Methodist potluck.  To me it feels so much more diabolical.

whitestripesBut the real upheaval here is in the sound.  While the riffy “Blue Orchid” makes sense to open the Elephant follow-up, Jack and Meg proceed to break the mold with “The Nurse,” a macabre little nursery rhyme set to marimba and shaker.  I am no great Meg apologist (she’s a musical genius and the spiritual center of the band, right?), but what makes this track a standout is the neanderthal cymbal-crashes at all the right wrong moments; in every verse, the confusing fury sneaks up on you, just like the song’s traitorous eponym.  The sonic departure is also dramatic in “Take, Take, Take,” when acoustic rhythm guitar verses give way to a swirling fandango of ivories and pathos.  And yet more inspired touches crowd the album:  Startling kitchen timers and dropped hunks of metal.  Jack tearing through “Red Rain” like a deinstitutionalized Jimmy Page.  The almost inaudible last verse of the closer, “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet),” where the singer all but admits an attempt at suicide, aborted “just before my lungs could get wet.”  It’s all here.

The emotional and artistic risks of Get Behind Me Satan may have put off some purists.  But to me, these risks are much more rock-and-roll than trying to sound like the Stooges.  Jack has proven in his solo work that there’s no keeping him in his little room.  And ten years on, when we look back at his boldest work with percussionist-sister-lover Meg, that expansive destiny should be plain as day.

 

Click here for our White Stripes/Jack White podcast from last year.

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