The White Stripes

Icky Thump

(Warner Bros.; 2007)

By Eric Sams | 30 September 2007

In the interest of full disclosure, lemme lay all my cards on the table at the outset:

Dear Jack White,

It's tireless work, Jack, isn't it, keeping the wolves from the door. After all, the legion of indie snobs have been just as tireless in their efforts to nail a sign to your back ever since the chainsaw riff of "Fell in Love with a Girl" tore the temple curtains of five-for-the-drive radio countdowns nationwide. It's been a heavy weight on your shoulders, watching the world shift and change around you, having people tell you that it's you who have changed.

We've seen the results of this burden. We've seen your work tinged black with bitterness at its edges. Get Behind Me Satan was a none too subtle missive to the haters, a biblically phrased "fuck off" to those who would hear your music and judge you not as an artist but as a person. But you were meticulous in not giving the haters a foothold. The arrangements, while expanded, were still taut with a sense of momentum, your guitar still inspired awe without being obnoxiously indulgent. In short, the album was both bitter and brilliant, and so you and Meg rode on the back of your consistently stellar riffs as you dined luxuriously on your cake while managing to have it too.

Just as consistent, and just as essential to your enormous success, as those riffs is your ability to inhabit the six-or-so-feet of space below whatever hat you've chosen to wear; now a tripped-out Delta bluesman ("300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues"), now a snake charming town crier ("Icky Thump"), now a half-crazed yodeling toreador ("Conquest"). It's a tightrope walk, to be sure, and it's been impressive as hell watching you traverse it with such aplomb, but maybe, Jack, you've just been up there too damn long.

An Avid Fan

These are my fanboy apologetics. It's also an abandoned draft. The statements themselves are an accurate description of the career arc of the White Stripes -- but they are also, of course, a copout.

In Martin Scorsese's overrated The Departed a distracting Jack Nicholson quotes John Lennon while inexplicably holding (seriously) a severed hand: "I'm an artist. Gimme anything and I'll get something out of it. You give me a fuckin' tuba and I'll get you something out of it." Jack and Meg reprise this promise almost verbatim in "Rag & Bone," a kind of latter day "Ball and a Biscuit" that lacks the incendiary solos and overall balls of its predecessor, but nevertheless contains Icky Thump's mission statement. "It's just things that you don't want / I can use'em / Meg can use'em / We can make something out of'em / Make some money out of'em at least."

The statement, ostensibly the ramblings of a gypsy packrat, is a boast, and it marks a shift in the tenor of Jack White's acute reactions to the microscope under which he finds himself. His trademark swagger has transformed from bitter counterattacks to a kind of playful pugnacity. Jack is wagging his finger at the haters just as Lennon, often frustrated by the demands and expectations of others, found solace in the constant validation of his work. Jack is taking on all comers. This attitude allows Jack a new sense of freedom, not needing to respond to every bit of negative press. Icky Thump finds the White Stripes' sound even more adventurous than it was on Satan (2005).

Songs like "Little Cream Soda" and "Bone Broke" are typical (and thus thoroughly enjoyable) Stripes jams, replete with the yelp, the growl, the rural mystic lyricism. "Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn" and "I'm a Martyr for My Love for You" are relatively successful experiments in full-bodied balladry, the former folksy and charming and the latter lethargic and a little more overtly sexy than we're accustomed to. That's the good news.

Here's the bad news. There are honest-to-God, legitimate, 100% throwaway tracks on this album. Not just songs that don't quite keep pace with the hits. Not just Jack pushing his eccentricity to the point of questionability. No, we're talking about songs that aren't even winsome or fun on first listen. They're awkward and unwieldy and they throw off the pacing of the whole record. "Saint Andrew (This Battle is in the Air)" is Celtic nonsense. The aforementioned "Rag and Bone" almost gets there but ultimately fails to become the spoken word romp that it aims for. There aren't many of these songs here, but the ones that are are bad enough to give the haters their long awaited foothold.

So congratulations, haters. The White Stripes, at the same moment they claim to have finally overcome your entanglements, have provided you the ammunition of a hit-or-miss album. It's my hope that Jack will be able to sustain his newfound serenity in the face of the spring-loaded backlash that's been building for the better part of a decade. I'm not all that optimistic, though. Who knows, maybe bitterness drives Jack White, makes him the ardent blues prophet he's capable of becoming. Whatever the case, if you were waiting for your chance to pile on the White Stripes, this is it. Enjoy it. I, avowed avid fan, will be surprised if you get too many more. Consider the battle lines further toed.