The White Stripes: hail to the anti-heroes

The White Stripes have always believed in simplifying music to its purest form. In doing so, Jack and Meg White, former husband and wife, seem to have broken every rule. They were the antithesis of the pop music that was popular in 2001 when they made a breakthrough with their third release, White Blood Cells. Their ongoing red-and-white theme is symbolic of their stripped-down approach to drums and guitar. The fast-paced and energetic yet emotionally heated tracks of White Blood Cells showed the world that two people could make amazing and interesting rock while sticking to the basics. The sound revs you up and rocks out in a way that harkens back to rock’s legends.

Their newest release, Elephant, has gone above and beyond breaking rules. They have filled out their sound with added bass and electric piano without taking away from the raw quality achieved in their former albums. No doubt this unrefined sound is also a product of their recording studio and their choice to use an eight track; Elephant was made in London exclusively using equipment built prior to 1963. Jack and Meg are down-to-earth rockers and at the same time experimental and bluesy, maintaining their foundation but continuing their evolution as artists.

Jack’s guitar sings as it solos, departing from the basic structure of the White Stripes’ formerly straightforward compositions. Constant and simplistic, the bass line makes the music thicker without complication. This added component creates a richer texture but remains simple and clean, allowing the guitar to really show off in a new and exciting way and interacting with the drums on a new level. The best example of this dynamic and bluesy style is “Ball and Biscuit.” Jack exhibits his guitar skills, displaying his mastery of the instrument and exploring new themes in composition and overall sound. Departing from the average three or four minute song, “Ball and Biscuit” continues on for over seven minutes.

This experimentation seeps into other tracks and is expressed in the vocals as well. Jack’s voice wails on some tracks and sounds screechy and stretched on others. Meg has taken a more active role than in previous albums; her drums swing confidently with Jack’s blues-derived voice on tracks like “The Air Near My Fingers,” a song about a crush. Meg’s drums are echoed by the piano. Jack’s voice is pulled, twisted and torn to every extreme in “There’s No Home for You Here;” he sounds like he’s been listening to way too much Queen. The Freddie Mercury influence is uncanny; the composition is full of the influences of blues and rock. The bipolar sound bounces from heavy rock to a slow, emotionally intense ballad. Jack’s guitar tapers off at times and takes over at others, singing the high pitched sound of distress. In another development, Meg proves herself to be quite a singer; she takes control of the mic on “In the Cold, Cold, Night,” a song about loneliness and longing. The song is stripped down to the very basics – even the drums are limited to a slight cymbal crash on a half-open high-hat. Her voice is the main instrument. This fundamental use of instruments is in the same in spirit as White Blood Cells, but manifests itself very differently. Instead of the fast and energized “Hotel Yorba,” “In the Cold, Cold, Night” is a languid, steady song that embraces Meg’s voice and message over the kick of drums and guitar.

Despite all this improvement and expansion, the band is still the same Detroit duo and the added bass and electric piano are both played by Jack. The new instruments and experimental aspects of the album give it more bite and make the songs more accessible – the lyrics are more introspective and personal. In general, the music of the White Stripes is less responsive to others’ work and more inspired and creative. However, their style is still derivative of the same forms and concepts. “Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine” could have been right off of White Blood Cells with an extra guitar kick during the solo. The band hasn’t fundamentally changed so much as it has improved on an already amazing thing. All in all, Elephant is an absolute must-have. It’s the best album to come out this year and will prove to be a rock classic. All that remains to be seen is how the songs will be performed live: Will Jack and Meg focus on songs that are only drums and guitar, or will they include special guests to help them deliver the message of their new sound on stage?