The White Stripes' 'Elephant' Turns 10

The White Stripes in 2003 / Photo by Getty Images
The White Stripes in 2003 / Photo by Getty Images
WRITTEN BY
Rob Harvilla

It begins and ends with "Ball and Biscuit," and by "it," I mean "Western civilization." The 21st century's most astounding, most wryly pornographic, most brain-meltingly electrifying blues song. Did the electric guitar even exist prior to "Ball and Biscuit"? Did distortion? Did hype? Did critical praise? Did the colors red and white? Did outlandishly oversize declarations of virility? Has there been a single memorable guitar solo performed anywhere, by anyone, in the decade since its release?

"Ball and Biscuit," all 439 stomping, seething, snarling, Sam Ash-smiting seconds of it, is what we should broadcast out into deep space if we wish to communicate to uncouth aliens the idea that they should not fuck with us, ever. It is a song to repel interstellar invasions, to vaporize asteroids, a preemptive strike so comically priapic it renders everything in its path limp and docile. (Was it our generation's version of "Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home"?) Feel free to cut and paste to create the world's most devastating and debonair yearbook quote/sext/tweet/away message/status update: "Right now you could care less about me / But soon enough you will care by the time I'm done." Or, slightly more succinctly: "Read it in the newspaper / Ask your girlfriends and see if they know."

They knew. The White Stripes' Elephant came out a decade ago. April Fool's Day, 2003. It is 12 days younger than the Iraq War, outlandishly violent and luridly mesmerizing and visually monochromatic (red and white and black as opposed to night-vision green) the way the Iraq War initially was, beloved and decisive the way the Iraq War was/is not. (Hopefully, at least one pre-SEO-awareness reviewer got away with the headline "Shock and Awe.") It is permanently canonized, if only for the opening seconds of its opening track, "Seven Nation Army," a seven-note melody you will remember until the day you die, surviving now primarily through the bizarre medium of college-football marching-band chants, floating en masse in the a cappella ether amid another Alabama-Arkansas shellacking like the ghost of the monoculture. Yes, college football, speaking of virility, of violence, of color-coordination, of America, of capitalism, of war.

It's their best album, and more to the point, their hugest, the apex of both their sonic enormity and our fascination with the public eccentricity that drove it. (Which eccentricity is now eight billion subsequent rock-critic controversies removed now, rendering quaint and antiquated Meg and Jack's once feverishly discussed and wholly unique brand of sibling rivalry, here addressed via overly meta closer "It's True That We Love One Another.") Thesis: "We got money and a little place to fight now." It boldly reprises the duo's old thrills ("There's No Home for You Here" is basically the deranged, hypothetical, saucy-choirboy Abbey Road version of "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground," the only slightly less canonized opener to their last album, 2001's White Blood Cells) and tries out a few playful new tricks (Meg's most prominent solo vocal, cooing coyly through the delicate "In the Cold, Cold Night," driving all the boys crazy). Otherwise, it tap-dances when it wants to (Burt Bacharach, both honored and bludgeoned by a dainty-to-demolishing "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself"), kills when it has to ("The Hardest Button to Button," hypnotic and pulverizing, and the one that rightfully made Klosterman swoon in these very pages back in the day). All that anthemic ardor and intrigue, coalescing defiantly around "Ball and Biscuit," each stomp of Jack's fuzzbox like a defibrillator jolting our hearts back from the dead.

Vintage gear only, BTW: Yes, Elephant was recorded on '60s (hell, maybe 1860s!) tube amps personally stolen by the Whites from Les Paul's garage, in some cases supplanted by tubes from Les Paul's own digestive system, the whole rig loaded into an archaically pristine tarpaper-shack studio (maybe instead comprised entirely of Lincoln Logs, as in logs personally split by former president Abraham Lincoln) after being pulled across the mighty pre-Louisiana Purchase Mississippi River by the very first Ford Model T, or maybe a team of Clydesdales, the whole shebang's only power source the key from Ben Franklin's kite or fuckin' whatever retro-fetishization campfire story they needed to tell you or you needed to hear. This record is also the highest possible triangulation of Popular and Weird a mere rock band is likely to achieve ever again, the liner notes gassing on about the Death of the Sweetheart, when by year's end Jack would find himself beating the crap out of that Von Bondies guy, the Stripes from here sliding into lesser pleasures: cinematographically sumptuous tours of Canada, the shriller and slighter pleasures of Get Behind Me Satan and Icky Thump, Jack's diminishing-returns side-project smorgasbord, and whatever mystical, unnerving, mercifully unspecific emotional morass compelled them to finally just break up.

I'm desperate to not overdo the They Don’t Make 'Em Like They Used To thing here, to not wallow in the comparative flaccidity of today's scare-quotes rock stars: the Black Keys retaining only the instrumental format, Dave Grohl and Co. retaining only the retro-fetishization, Mumford & Sons retaining little other than water, the latter-day Strokes retaining nothing at all. What made Elephant special in the first place was the immediate realization that it could never be replicated by humans, by aliens, by even the White Stripes themselves. So choose to look forward instead of backward: The immediate joke the day their split was formally announced was that it merely started the clock for a gala reunion Coachella headlining gig in 2021 or thereabouts, of which "Ball and Biscuit" will undoubtedly be the swaggering, epochal highlight, the guitar solo, the rock star, the sweetheart emphatically reborn. Your girlfriend will keep you apprised.

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