Black Math: The White Stripes’ Elephant at 20
Looking back on the LP that turned two weird punks into pop sensations
It’s just seven notes, plucked modestly yet ominously on a semiacoustic guitar, softly filtered through an octave pedal.
Key of E minor, starting with the royal E beloved of all aspiring-to-amazing guitar gods, then up to G in a syncopated figure that quickly ambles back down through E, D, and C, briefly holding the latter before a doomy half-step down to B – the fifth, a gleaming interval made to sound fearsome here. It’s now one of the most famous riffs in the universe, apt to suddenly leap out in front of you in football stadiums or movie theatres. And in that mind-blowing year of “Hey Ya!”, “Milkshake” and “Crazy in Love”, ingenious hits without a hint of rock, the headbanging throwback that instant-classic riff led into – “Seven Nation Army” – felt earth-shattering.
It’s hard to argue that a band that sounded pretty much exactly like Led Zeppelin on their debut album was “sui generis”. But we forget sometimes what a wide-open plain the early 2000s were for pop music. The 20th century had collapsed in on itself, having been weakened by an unbearable pyre of teen-pop, nu-metal, and misinformation about the end of the world. This left a vacuum in which, for a brief, shining moment, everything seemed new again, even if it was old. This meant not just classic-rock riffs, or the minimalist mess of the garage aesthetic, but cute color schemes for your outfits, or everybody using the same last name – gimmicks a few turns removed from their quaint origins. It meant maybe not even being discernibly ironic about any of these choices.
VIDEO: The White Stripes “Seven Nation Army”
Meg White met Jack Gillis while he was performing his poetry at open mic nights in Detroit. Though her image is one of cryptic supplication, details are scarce enough for us to imagine her strong-arming Gillis out of one idea into a much better one. Gillis also loved playing guitar (his favorite model was plastic, just like Charlie Parker), and White had a drum set from which she could conjure a gloriously arrhythmic thunder.
“When [Meg] started to play drums, just on a lark, it felt liberating and refreshing,” White said later. “There was something in it that opened me up.” This wasn’t the sole effect Meg had on him – they soon married, with Gillis taking her surname, probably less because of feminism than how it gave him a readymade rock ‘n’ roll moniker: Jack White. Meg also loved peppermints, and they turned her quirk into a name and a wardrobe.
Little hooks were everything in a pre-internet industry. The tricolor theme was fabulous: black and white is hard to fuck up, but if you’re going to pick a third, red is ideal, connoting aggression, sexuality, and stop-sign whimsy. The Whites would cut limited-edition 7” singles with cute posed photos on the labels, directly tethering themselves to the bygone eras their music recalled. White (Jack) did sing like the multi-year winner of a Robert Plant imitation contest, but his lyrics were so much better than Zeppelin’s borrowed myths, surreal and inventive, turning cliches on their heads (“The Big Three Killed My Baby”).
He was also a Jimmy Page with mediated hubris, and his own John Paul Jones, a multi-instrumentalist with far less ornate ideas about coloring in raw sounds. And if Meg was no John Bonham – people are sneering about her lack of technical proficiency to this day – she was something his wild gift could never encompass: punk.
Their ascent was clean and perfect. The bristling noise of their first album raised heads and eyebrows, with a few instant-ID covers (“Stop Breaking Down”, “One More Cup of Coffee”) scattered among its seventeen sometimes indistinguishable tracks. The divorce they dodged in interviews (insisting they were siblings – remember?) came right after; Jack says the famously fame-averse Meg was the one who encouraged him to stick with the Stripes.
De Stijl (titled for a Dutch art movement literally translated as “the style”) let some air into their sound – White adding a touch of piano (“Apple Blossom”) or fiddle (“I’m Bound to Pack it Up”) as needed, and proving he could write sterling pure pop (“You’re Pretty Good Looking (for a Girl)”) or seamlessly slip in an old country blues (“Your Southern Can is Mine”). 2001’s White Blood Cells was the great leap forward, picked up shortly after its release by Virgin’s V2 subsidiary label. The Stripes hit like an addiction; institutions like The New York Times and DJ John Peel spoke about them like they were the next big thing, rather than a canny amalgam of old big things. Either way, the album was dynamite: White’s songs were beautifully crafted and covertly brilliant, and they always, always rocked.
The follow-up to an automatic classic, Elephant served a special function in their discography. The band’s artistic breakthrough was only their commercial breakthrough by indie standards. Since White Blood Cells dropped, they’d expanded their audience at an insane rate; as long as their next effort as was good as the last, the promise of an actual pop-sized audience to adore it awaited them. Having refused to compromise a thing from moment one, the fourth album was once again crafted with no such commercial concerns in mind. Jack White favored the analog 8-track as his recording console of choice, though albums had been recorded digitally for a quarter century, and major artists had been using 24-tracks since ‘67.
The most contemporary technology used for Elephant was manufactured the year before the Beatles broke in America, and White’s favorite editing technique remained a pair of scissors. Sticking to their retro guns proved a killer move: Elephant is a masterpiece worthy of Elton John or Rod Stewart — 14 diverse, melodic, rootsy, moving, catchy classics.
Elephant (its delightful cover has each Stripe in an antique coup of an outfit, flanking a trunk – ha ha ha) appropriately opens with the rumble of a righteous stomp. “Seven Nation Army” finds White aiming to march “far from this opera forevermore,” and though we know the opera people never let him in the door, it’s a great statement of his stripped-down philosophy. So is his searing, octave-leaping solo – anti-showboat for sure, but enough to get a whole mosh pit to whip out their air guitars and start strangling. It careens into “Black Math”, one of the most relentlessly bone-crunching items in their canon, rushing like hardcore and swinging like “Tutti Frutti”. Meg drops away in the middle, letting the riff and vocal crisp and flake together in a bonfire you can feel on your face. But one of rock’s most no-frills bands meant to try on a few for this album, a method immediately signaled by the wash of Queen-like “ahhhhs” that kick off “There’s No Home for You Here”. The Stripes slam into the hard-pop chorus, but Jack hushes his strings and Meg favors her cymbals for the verses, little torrents of polysyllabic poetry and Beatlesque melody.
The album switches gears for the next few songs, their loveliest, tenderest sequence to date. For the Bacharach-David deep cut “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself”, a lilting ode to boredom, the band punctuates the sweet narrative with bursts of force and heat, so that by the end White’s gentle malaise becomes a screaming unravel.
Much of Meg White’s appeal is in her use as well as her choices, and on the next song, “In the Cold, Cold Night”, she makes her singing debut, over her ex-husband’s sensuously plucked guitar and the low sizzle of a held bass string. It’s the band’s “Fever”, and it has the same slinky suggestiveness, its power in how totally unfettered Meg’s untrained voice is. She can’t sing well, but she can sing well enough; her lack of push makes the performance quietly seductive: “you will know that it’s warm inside/and you’ll come run to me.” Today, it’s an unlikely karaoke favorite.
The Stripes had been melodic, but never quite so disarmingly pretty as the next couple of songs. “I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart” amplifies White’s earnest vocal over a bed of blocky piano and the usual guitar-drums. The way he strains up to those highest notes is the most calculated kind of vulnerability, and it emphasizes how affectingly White has worked out his lyric: “We’ve been sitting in your backyard for hours/but she won’t even come out and say hi… what kind of cartwheels do I have to pull/what kind of joke should I lay on her now?” It’s “Stacy’s Mom”’s nicer little brother. On the even brittler “You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket”, he ditches Meg and his electric for a plaintively picked acoustic. It’s the softest-spoken heartbreaker in the band’s catalog, the kind of broken ballad you’d sing alone in your bedroom, nursing something unrequited. The blissful hush of this stretch gives way to the seven cocksure minutes of “Ball and Biscuit” – White’s “Voodoo Chile”, in which he casually describes how well he’s going to fuck you. Look at this man: not a guy you necessarily want to let inside, much less rock your world. But as his guitar explodes with frenetic desire between the hard-blues verses, you wonder if you’ve already surrendered.
VIDEO: The White Stripes “The Hardest Button to Button”
The band doesn’t cool it down for the rest of the record. “The Hardest Button to Button” is their most madcap slice of pseudo-punk; you have no idea what it means when White bitterly spits out “now we’re a FAM-ily!” through a glam-rock purse of his lips, and you hope you never find out. A jarring sample from corny old radio personality Mort Crim at the start of “Little Acorns” (“once I broke my problems into small pieces, I was able to carry them, just like those a-kerns, one at a time”) leaves you completely unprepared for the song’s savage thrash. “Hypnotized” barely waits for you to settle in, stuffing their swiftest, roughest performance into a very punk-rock 1:47. White lets a bit of that John Lennon wordy melodicism resurface for “The Air Near My Fingers”, just as it’s gotten harder and harder to breathe – only to rip out the oxygen with an arsonist’s remorse for the feral “Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine.”
Then suddenly, everything stops, and the album goes out on a note-perfect joke, its self-reflexiveness ideal for the one moment in history everybody knew who they were and wanted them around. Titled as if addressing the press, whom they’d playfully fascinated with their are-they-related-or-what routine, “Yes It’s True That We Love One Another” is a hootenanny-flavored duet with long-forgotten singer-songwriter Holly Golightly. Meg slaps a tambourine on her knee as White strums the guitar on his.
“Yes it’s true that we love one another,” they confirm. “I love Jack White like a little brother,” Golightly clarifies, in a deadpan so heavy it could kill a couple of doves. “Well Holly, I love you too, but there’s just so much that I don’t know about you.” They squabble for a few lines and decide to solicit Meg’s take. “Do you think Jack really loves me?” “You know, I don’t care,” she offers, “‘cause Jack really bugs me.”
They kept that mystery up for four more years of increasing popularity, White expanding his sound only within the restrained realm his heroes preferred – a light broadening of the palette a la Pendulum or Houses of the Holy. But all good things must come to an end; the peppermint twins with the classic-rock jones were ready to hang up their rock ‘n’ roll shoes. White hit a new sphere of celebrity in the wake of Elephant’s massive success, dating Renee Zellweger (and appearing, looking bewildered, in her awards-season slog Cold Mountain).
As household names go, he’s now in the eccentric-old-uncle category, railing against cell phones and making increasingly insular one-man-band music. Meg was always indifferent to the ardor of millions, and White has intimated that her own aversion to anything like real stardom is why the band ultimately had to call it quits. Divorced from a second husband, MC5 guitarist Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith’s son (which makes Patti Smith her ex-mother-in-law) she lives in absolute, unimpeded peace, likely giving less than two shits about what Twitter thinks about her drumming.
They look stranger each passing year, these two matching-outfit misfits. But their achievement stands, six wonderful CDs, black and white and red all over, there on the shelf whenever you want to hear two sweet weird kids burn the barn down. They never did it with more confidence and finesse than on Elephant – the only time they were so fresh and so famous, they could warm your mother’s heart.
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