|BELIEVE THE HYPE? THE WHITE STRIPES' GET BEHIND ME SATAN.|
Blues sensuality, garage-rock primitivism, Dylan obsession. Jack White's songwriting has many acknowledged components, but as his new album suggests, the most important of all might be his ability to get totally and horribly dumped often enough to pull some terrific
songs out of the carnage.
Now, as a normal citizen, it's impossible to know the full extent of White's private life: Did Renee Zellweger end things with him? Did ex-wife (and current White Stripes drummer) Meg White tire of his nasally voice and impulsively reach for the divorce papers? Still, your ears lead you to some conclusions -- the two best Stripes records, 2001's White Blood Cells and the current Get Behind Me Satan -- both
immediately followed the end of a romantic relationship. Maybe the band's other three records were the result of Jack's aborted love affairs too, but going back and comparing, they lack a certain depth of feeling -- they don't sound like emotional exorcisms. So if you worried that Elephant painted the White Stripes into a garage-rock corner, popular but predictable, Get Behind Me Satan has all the shading and agony you first fell in love with on White Blood Cells. We shouldn't care whether or not Renee is to thank for this great record, but still we'll wonder. For all his legitimate straining to be perceived as a bona fide artist, Jack White makes his best work when he goes tabloid, turning his amorous travails into juicy tell-alls.
Jack is less than a month away from 30, and you can trace his maturity through both his creative progression as well as the lines on his face from the covers of the band's five records. Only in retrospect do we see how boyish he looked on 2000's De Stijl; revisit the songs, and it's obvious that this young songwriter was still digesting his influences -- his best moment is an amped-up rendition of a Son House ballad about a dead lover he can't wrest from his soul.
Around this time, he found his calling as a fire-and-brimstone doomsayer decrying the treachery of bad women. (One thing he shares with Dylan that people rarely acknowledge is that both men can have a tendency to couch their failed relationships in almost Biblical good-and-evil simplicity -- the lady being the morally bankrupt one, mind you.) The tunes improved on White Blood Cells, but the new atmosphere of gothic, jagged-edge ferocity was more invaluable still. Even the instrumental "Aluminum" howled like a fresh wound, and the album's negotiation between sweet ballads and eviscerating blues freakouts bore the earmarks of a recent breakup, Jack White streaking back and forth between "I love you" and "I hate you" with disturbing immediacy. Coincidently or not, his marriage to Meg had ended a year earlier. Once the media discovered that Jack and Meg weren't brother and sister as they claimed, White Blood Cells only grew in stature, its dirty sex songs adding dimension because now we knew exactly whom he was singing them to.
Get Behind Me Satan shares Elephant's polish -- the band jumped to a mini-major after White Blood Cells -- but it feels less monochromatic. Maybe the dissolution with Zellweger has something to do with it. Satan's first five tracks demonstrate its range: propulsive rawk scorcher, moody marimba voodoo, jaunty finger-snapper, desolate piano ballad, O Brother ghost story. Shifting stylistically as he never has before, White is still narrowly focused on the ins and outs of relationships, but he's added an impressive sonic heft that lends elegance and mystery to his heartsickness. Consequently, Satan feels like the flipside to the battering-ram Elephant, whose title suggested its imposing weight. Besides the opener, "Blue Orchid," Satan has very little guitar rock on the premises, and what's there is a mixed bag. "Instinct Blues" is this record's requisite girl-you-done-me-wrong blues, and it's a dull affair. As a testament to White's artistic development, this type of song, which is his way of acknowledging heroes like Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell, no longer carries the excitement it once possessed for him. Tellingly, the album's other blues-ranter, "Red Rain," works only because of its utter desperation, vaporizing genre conventions for one long accusatory cry. What used to be a highlight is now merely a respectable afterthought.
Instead, Satan is Jack's piano album, his "quiet" introspective record, which won't please the modern-rock stations once "Blue Orchid" runs out of gas. But the transition is understandable and welcome. After his soundtrack work on the bluegrass-tinged Cold Mountain and his production on Loretta Lynn's comeback vehicle, White was showing a burgeoning interest in other musical forms. Van Lear Rose still contained some of White's self-conscious attempts to sound older, more authentic in a way. By contrast, Satan is confident and assured. White, like his friend Beck, will always have a bit of the intellectual record-collector fanboy about him, but he's transforming his obsessions from paint-by-number concepts into wholly organic songs. He's so much of a grownup now, his blues-legend facial hair seems all the more unnecessary: Jack, really, you don't have to convince us anymore.
As much as his music evolves, though, thematically he rarely strays from the blues' contention that your entire happiness is based on the love you're (not) getting from your woman. But he's growing more eloquent about his dilemmas -- "As Ugly As I Seem" breaks your heart with its complicated, doomed analysis of too many arguments, too many misunderstandings, too many things going wrong. Usually I like to think of myself as being above celebrity water-cooler chitchat, but I admit that I think of Renee while listening to Satan the same way I pondered Meg with White Blood Cells -- the zeal in Jack's melancholy and self-doubt makes you speculate what kind of woman could have stirred such passion. The anxiety of uncertainty that frames "My Doorbell" and "Forever for Her (Is Over for Me)" doesn't feel fictional or long ago -- the freshness of the melodies gives the impression that they're happening of the moment. And their unresolved emotions add suspense, begging the mind to unravel the whys and hows of the backstory.
Between the Meg's-my-sister-not-my-ex press switcheroo and the we're-only-doing-three-interviews-total-for-this-album anti-publicity publicity for Satan, White is a smart media artist, and so perhaps he understands that his new album will be viewed through the prism of his celebrity coupling. How fitting that Satan came out the same day as Coldplay's X&Y, an album that will have millions of US Weekly readers wondering what influence Gwynnie had on Chris Martin's writing. Such are the times we live in. When a movie like Mr. & Mrs. Smith opens, it gives relationship rubber-neckers a chance to glean details of what went on behind the bedroom doors of famous people. But this sort of star gossiping is easier with albums because of how personal a song can be: How much of Justin Timberlake's Justified is about Britney? Is Usher's Confessions really about TLC's Rozanda "Chili" Thomas?
In an era of scandal-heavy love affairs whose veracity we question, Get Behind Me Satan is dignified, weathered and heartfelt about why love hurts so bad. Elephant portended a much hyped indie band going platinum but losing its individuality, its hard-earned outsider status. (And Jack & Renee's relationship didn't help matters.) But those worries seem like ancient history now. On Get Behind Me Satan, Jack and Meg are alone together again as they began, hanging out at his home studio in Detroit without any intrusions, thoughtful and communal and mending their hearts one track at a time. No matter the Brazilian model Jack just married (or didn't), part of me still hypothesizes that Meg is the love of his life. I have no way to prove this tangibly, of course. Like anybody else, I'm just listening to the pulse of the material, filling in the blanks myself. After all, love's always open to interpretation.
Believe the Hype Rating: 8 out of 10
Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon. Believe the Hype runs every other Monday on The Black Table.