The White Stripes
Get Behind Me Satan
By Matt Stephens | 20 June 2005
If there’s one big thing rock music has lost since its halcyon days in the late ’60s, and particularly since the advent of this thing we call “indie rock” in the late ’80s and ’90s, it’s a sense of any kind of mystique or inscrutability in its artists. For more than a decade, very little has separated rock fan from rock performer — starting with the Pixies and Pavement and through the early ’00s with current indie gods like the Decemberists and Spoon, bands seem more and more like a bunch of regular dudes who just happened to suspend their obsessive record-buying habits long enough to afford a few musical instruments.
No, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it kills the sense of mythology that was always central to most rock bands of yore — fundamental to most people’s appreciation of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Joy Division, The Clash, or whoever, was the character of the artists themselves, and not just their music. We love the Rolling Stones not just because Beggar’s Banquet is so great, but just as much because Mick Jagger was a wily serial womanizer and Keith Richards a cantankerous junkie-skeleton. Sure, Interpol and The Strokes all seem like pretty cool guys, but beneath all the Gucci suits and immaculately blow-dried hair are a bunch of post-punk obsessed city kids, the kind you probably bought weed from back in high school.
Detroit’s White Stripes have resuscitated many outmoded fashions throughout their six years of record-making (stubborn minimalism, allegiance to the blues, colour co-ordinating, cowboy outfits, peppermint aesthetics), but to my mind, this one is the most important. It seems that no matter how many magazine covers, MTV awards shows or flaky Hollywood starlets The Stripes find themselves on, the sense of mystery and singularity that surrounds them and their music remains somehow undiminished. The ludicrous brother-sister controversy of a few years ago, the strict public dress code, that wedding in a canoe — all these things invited public fascination, whether or not they intended to. Jack White is one of the most recognizable rock stars on the planet, but he’s still creepy-looking enough that if you passed him walking around your city late at night you’d likely be quick to cross the street.
I’ll get back to that. From a purely musical standpoint, Get Behind Me Satan almost completely does away with the rudimentary guitar+drums formula that defined virtually all of their previous work and leaves in its place an uneasy stew of piano, marimba, banjo, and off-tempo multi-tracked vocals. Throughout its adventurous 44 minutes, the album dips its toes into bluegrass, metal, soul, and even gospel, doing so with fluency rare in musicians of any era or genre. It goes more places than every other Stripes album combined, yet still manages to sound more cohesive and distinctive than anything else in their catalogue.
Opening track and lead single “Blue Orchid,” with its Pumpkins-esque guitar effects and circular metal riff reminiscent of a more melodic Death From Above 1979, is probably the most recognizable track here, if only for Meg White’s characteristically basic 1-2-3-4 tom-tom thumping. The song achieves the kind of uber-confident swagger Jack White has been aiming for ever since De Stijl, but it’s hard to imagine it finding much of a home on rock radio. It’s too cryptic and minimal; and, like much of this record, fiendishly intense.
As soon as “Blue Orchid” comes to its abrupt conclusion, “The Nurse” is introduced by an ominous marimba pattern and a barely audible chorus of throaty groans. It’s the most jarring and unusual song here, as anyone even casually familiar with the band’s work will practically leap out of their seat when they hear the first of Jack’s brutal, off-kilter guitar stabs. But as experimental as its arrangement may be, it still feels natural, and makes for one of the album’s many highlights. “My Doorbell” ends up being just as surprising, if only because Meg’s funky drum hook and Jack’s jubilant vocal delivery so completely go against what the two previous tracks set us up to expect.
It only gets better from there. “Little Ghost,” an invariably Loretta-influenced Appalachian folk experiment manages to be hilarious and melancholy at the same time, with White’s narrator falling for an apparition (sample lyric: “Can you scare me up a little bit of love? / I’m the only one who sees you and I can’t do much to please you”) and lamenting having to keep it a secret from his friends. “White Moon” is possibly Jack’s most fully realized ballad, carried only by a stately piano, a gorgeously understated melody, occasional symbol-crashes and moraccas, and perhaps the most skilfully-timed glass-shattering ever recorded. Meg’s wafery Moe Tucker-like voice makes a brief but effective appearance on the 34-second “Passive Manipulation,” making open allusions to incest and domestic abuse with an eerie detachment.
The much-discussed “Take, Take, Take,” recounting a fictional encounter with Rita Hayworth in a squalid bar, has to be one the most bizarre songs written on the topic of celebrity worship, but when the song segues suddenly into its 11/4 pseudo-chorus and White begins feverishly yelping the songs title, his conviction is undeniable. Things get even stranger with the blankly psychotic “Red Rain,” which see-saws back and forth between incomprehensible sing-song verses and violent guitar freak-outs, eventually climaxing with White chanting, “if there is a sin / Then there is a sinner, too / And if there is a lie / Then there is a liar, too,” while the song combusts around him.
Final track “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet),” featuring only Jack and his piano, gives the album a moving, bittersweet finale which finds the lonesome and heartsick narrator contemplating suicide by a river, eventually finding solace only in the love of his sister. “Sometimes I get jealous of all her little pets / and I get lonely, but I ain’t that lonely yet,” are the last lines he sings, and it’s as if all of the album’s themes — jealousy, suspicion, sexual confusion, incest, love, and above all else, loneliness — find a peaceful, if tentative, resolution. It’s the kind of sublime moment most artists work their whole life trying to choreograph.
So, indeed, Get Behind Me Satan marks the point where The White Stripes’ music has finally become as charismatic and mysterious as its creators — the point, in fact, where it doesn’t even matter if Jack and Meg are siblings or if they’re marrying anonymous supermodels in the rainforest or if they’re meeting for weekly coffee dates with the spectre of Robert Johnson. Being confident enough to take this kind of risk is commendable in itself, but to find results this brave and electrifying in doing so is a truly rare feat. The Stripes have thrown their self-imposed rulebook into the fireplace and made their sprawling, whimsical, and deeply strange masterpiece on what sounds like nothing more than a leap of faith. Whether or not we really get it, I think we should all just feel lucky to be along for the ride.