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Just Like Starting Over: Jack pines for a new woman; Meg becomes a back-up player.

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Get Behind Me Satan

The White Stripes

(V2)

For years now, Jack White's detractors and a healthy minority of his fans have insisted he needed to get a real band. Drop the amateurish drummer, get a bass player, and rock out right, they'd say. And for years, those same detractors and fans have missed the point of White's art-project-cum-rock-band: At their best, the White Stripes' meaning has been contingent on the charms and tensions of Jack and (ex-wife/"sister") Meg White's one-on-one conversation.

Get Behind Me Satan finds Jack and Meg starting over in a sense, as the band's first four albums compose a cycle that seems to have clicked to a close. The band's first two albums - The White Stripes and De Stijl - were obscurities at the time and, in retrospect, seem to have been about finding a sound and establishing a style.

The breakout White Blood Cells was when they found their groove. It's an album of hopeful yet unrequited love songs from a boy to his drummer. "If I could just hear your pretty voice," he implores, but she only answers back by keeping the beat. As a collection of ranting, raving love songs from a male rocker to a woman whose own perspective is never heard, the album was very much in the classic-rock tradition, but it had an underlying sweetness of which ostensible models such as Led Zep or the Stones were never capable. The result was the most female-friendly mainstream hard-rock record since Nirvana's Nevermind.

The bigger, more scattered follow-up, Elephant - its cover depicting Meg wiping away tears - had a things-fall-apart vibe. It seemed to signal an end to a theoretical relationship (the real one had ended long before), and with it Jack's (and Meg's) little rock-and-roll art project seemed to have run its course.

With Get Behind Me Satan, the band's detractors may finally have a point. Now that Jack has taken to writing songs about a different public relationship (too bad Renee Zellweger-Chesney doesn't play drums!), Meg is less crucial to the band's symbolism. After all, the White Stripes' appeal isn't merely the idea of the band, but its music. And, in this case, that means Jack's music. He is a major talent, an authentic rock genius on the order of a Neil Young or Van Morrison, the kind that mainstream music culture doesn't create much anymore. As a triple-threat singer-songwriter-guitarist, he can make good records indefinitely, with Meg or without her.

Get Behind Me Satan sticks to the duo setup, but the musical changes - a strong presence of piano and marimba that expands Jack's rhythmic and dynamic range - are perhaps an acknowledgement that the two-person guitar-and-drum exchange has said all it has to say.

White's grab-bag of cheap, nifty guitar riffs is still plentiful, as the lead single "Blue Orchid" attests, but Get Behind Me Satan is at its best musically when White downplays his rampaging guitar and lets his wider musical palette evoke the floor-board-stomping bonhomie of White Blood Cells' "Hotel Yorba" - as on the earthy "My Doorbell," the hillbilly music of "Little Ghost," or the shimmying "The Denial Twist."

White makes no secret about the "you" he's addressing in these songs. On "Blue Orchid," he wails, "You got a reaction/You got a reaction, didn't you?" Then he follows that up on "Forever For Her (Is Over For Me)" with, "Well, everybody's reaction is changing you/But their love is only a fraction of what I can give to you."

As with White Blood Cells, this album of rock-boy whines to an uncooperative object of desire transcends the genre, and for the same reasons. For starters, White seems to be singing to a particular woman rather than to womanhood. But more importantly, this band not only knows but acknowledges the pitfalls of the form. Meg may be less crucial here than ever before, but she still makes her one vocal appearance count, setting female fans straight on "Passive Manipulation" with some key advice: "Don't succumb to the wishes of your brothers ... you need to know the difference between a father and a lover." More important is Jack himself, who opens "Forever For Her (Is Over For Me)" with an inspirational admission - "I blew it" - and offers his own advice to male fans late on "The Denial Twist": "Just because she makes a big rumpus/She don't mean to be mean or hurt you on purpose, boy/Take a tip and do yourself a little service/Take a mountain, turn it into a mole."

Grade: A-

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