The White Stripes’ Elephant is not a good record. It seems like one for the first eight songs, but then you get to a song called “The Hardest Button to Button.” This is when you realize that Elephant is, in fact, a remarkably good record, quite possibly a great record, and certainly the sexiest divorce-rock album since Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville.
The beginning of “The Hardest Button to Button” almost feels like filler, which is normal; just about every album ever made has a few throwaway tracks. (On White Blood Cells, the filler starts with “The Union Forever,” and on De Stijl it comes after “Death Letter.”) But something weird happens about 40 seconds into “The Hardest Button to Button”: Jack White starts rapping about a baby born in 1984 (who cries like an earthquake and plays with a laser pistol), and the guitar chords collapse into a power-sludge blues groove, and suddenly Jack is insisting that his opinions don’t matter and that his brain feels like pancake batter, and he starts pronouncing the word button with a British accent. And it’s suddenly apparent that, contrary to what you’ve been thinking for the last 59 seconds, this is actually the bestsong on the album. And this is no accident. This is strategy.Elephant indisputably proves that the White Stripes are more than postmodern hipster kids from Detroit: Jack’s an alchemist, and his ex-wife’s a catalyst, and they’re both golden.
On the surface, the songs on Elephant aren’t that different from the ones on the Stripes’ previous three albums. Jack continues to liberate bank vaults of twisted skronk with Jimmy Page flourishes, and Meg White’s drumming is still as spare and staccato as a western Wyoming fence line. Elephant was recorded entirely on pre-1963 analog equipment, and it sounds like heavy metal for the Great Depression. There’s still no bassist (though Jack tunes his guitar to sound exactly like a bass on the first track), and almost half the songs open with Jack telling us the title in the first line. But while the band’s sound hasn’t changed much, it doesn’t matter. Like his idol Bob Dylan, Jack White starts everything on the page, letting the lyrics, and the ever-shifting persona they articulate, shape the music.
Take, for example, “Ball and Biscuit,” perhaps the best elucidation of the White Stripes’ current aesthetic. Jack’s lyrics open with his growing numerology obsession: “It’s quite possible that I’m your third man,” he says to his girl, “but it’s a fact that I’m the seventh son.” The “third man” reference is personal: Jack likes everything to come in groups of three, which somewhat ironically is why the Stripes have just two members–Jack wants their music to comprise only guitar, drums, voice. The “seventh son” line refers to the folkloric notion of such offspring having the gift of “second sight” (in other words, Jack paranormally understands something his lady friend does not). So here, in two succinctly coded phrases, lies the entire White Stripes mythos: They are simultaneously more real and more fake than any other American rock band. Jack is talking about himself, but he’s also talking about a self-created icon who doesn’t really exist. When he tells his woman to “Read it in the newspapers” before unloading hyper-Hendrix space-walk guitar, he’s basically telling the story of his life since the summer of 2001.
Prior to Elephant‘s release, people made a big deal about the news that Meg would finally sing lead vocals on a studio track (turns out she sounds a little like Nico), that they’d cover a Burt Bacharach composition (“I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself”),and that U.K. garage-rock queen Holly Golightly would sing with Jack and Meg on the album’s final track (the charming, childlike “It’s True That We Love One Another”). But the deeper enchantment of Elephant erupts from its operatic totality and from the very notion that Jack sings a song (“Little Acorns”) in which he tells a woman that her problems can be solved if she cuts the curls out of her hair. I have no idea what that is supposed to mean. This is not garage rock; this is art rock. And that’s a compliment.