If I may be so bold

Because I have a lot to do tonight, and (believe it or not) The New Goo is not the center of the universe, I’m going to throw another slightly edited archive piece into this garbage-can that never gets emptied. This is my take on the White Stripes’ last album, Elephant, which was released uncannily close to Gus Van Zant’s Elephant, but as far as I can tell, there is no connection.

Rereading this for the first time since I wrote it, I am struck by how I just thoughtlessly disregarded everything that I didn't like about this album. Had my critical ear been tricked by Jack’s Nixon-era recording techniques? Had my usually critical words been slipped ecstasy tabs by every single rock critic that used the words “Elephant” and “masterpiece” in the same breath without breaking character? Whatever was to blame for my sunnyside-up, glass-is-more-than-half-full one-sided perception of Elephant, I maintain that it is still a fine album, infinitely more complex than their breakthrough, White Blood Cells. But it just can’t live up to this superlative review.

Album Review: Elephant
Artist: The White Stripes
May 24, 2004

There's an elephant in the room. You must have heard of him by now. If the rumors are true and rock `n' roll has, in fact, died a slow death, he wants to resurrect it. He plays blues the way country should sound and plays country the way blues should sound. You put him on a pedestal and he escapes, not wanting to suffer the limitations of rock journalist-dictated labels, but instead, practices putting his brilliance to good use and bringing the new Loretta Lynn album into the world.

He makes a cameo in a Civil War-themed melodrama and unlike all of the other actors, he actually looks happy to be there. He gets in a fight with the lead singer of a band trying to hop on the "Detroit Rock City" bandwagon, and let's just say that anyone who caught a fleeting glimpse of the poor, almost unidentifiable victim in Spin knows that the Von Bondies lead singer dude really got a pummeling from Mr. Jack White of the White Stripes, whose album, Elephant, is essentially unavoidable in its power, scope, and focus, more so than its predecessor, White Blood Cells.

If you believe in rock `n' roll's ability to survive in the 21st century, deep within the guitar solo in "Ball and Biscuit," you can find proof that Clapton really was a deity, Robert Johnson really did sell his soul to the Devil, and Beatles really were bigger than Jesus.

In case you've forgotten, spirituality CAN still live in music, and it doesn't have to be Al Green gospel or come from a sitar strummed by Shiva. To put it simply, music elicits emotional and philosophical responses and teaches lessons about life in the same way as a story about men (or Gods, depending on your perspective) who could turn water into wine and find the middle way through meditation. It just might not be on such a large scale.

Instead of immortal, almighty, and omniscient, the meager spirit of the White Stripe's Elephant strives to evoke the beauty of human confusion. You can't build a religion around the mind's tendency to cloud up and wonder in circles, but you can build a brilliant album that celebrates (rather than simulates) the ghosts of blues-rock's past.

Four songs to savor:

1. “Black Math”

You endure the millionth official listen of modern rock radio veteran "Seven Nation Army" in order to treasure that moment of tranquility that passes like a painful blinking eye before "Black Math." The song is hiding in the wings, just waiting to come out, and when it takes the stage with a vengeance, its manic depressive chords slash the silence like it shouldn’t have been there in the first place. As Jack White channels his inner Jimmy Page (circa 1969), you can hear the eerie echoes of "Communication Breakdown" driving you insane. Solos come out from behind lyrics, mimicking the utter confusion of the words wailed into oblivion. Understanding what this song is really about would dismiss its nature, which is essentially a maze of misunderstanding. The lyrics are filled with "maybes" and question marks, each leading to bigger lakes and oceans of "maybes" and question marks.

2. “Hypnotize”

How low are you when the ring tone of your lover's telephone can appease your loneliness? Set against the backdrop of desperate steroid chords, "Hypnotize" is simultaneously a sweet and tender country song on paper, so sweet and tender that you can't help wondering whether this is the first punk-influenced song to express lasting, monogamous romantic intentions. "I want to hold your little hand, if I may be so bold...and be your right hand man `till your hands get cold." Put this on the list of songs to play at your wedding.

3. “The Hardest Button to Button”

Most buttonholes are created with the intention of making it easy as possible for the button to slide through. Are buttons ever hard to button? What's that, you say? When you're drunk? The last button on your coat before you leave a bar totally tossed? The very button you wish someone could button up for you, if you weren't all alone? With that context out of the way, it's difficult to pinpoint how the baby boy with his toy and toothache fit into the mix; however, all this pretension about "The Hardest Button to Button" being a song about hard time family livin' erodes when Jack starts in on one of the great recent rants of rock. Beginning with "Well, it's easy, when you don't know better," you realize that it may be folly to analyze and think about life too much. Maybe life IS easier when you don't criticize, question, wonder...when you're happily ignorant and close-minded. "But there's just something wrong with you. Just feel like you're the hardest button to button." The tragedy of knowing too much is confusion...not knowing how to put it to use socially, politically, and/or psychologically. "I had opinions that didn't matter. I had a brain that felt like pancake batter." This is not lazy, passive confusion. It's desperate confusion locked inside a long dormant volcano, ready to blow any second. It's the confusion of trying to button a button while alone and drunk, or worse, attempting to button a button through a hole that simply doesn't exist.

4. "You've Got Her in Your Pocket" is a quiet acoustic song that juxtaposes two opposite relationship extremes, bringing about more puzzlement in a peaceful setting. The act of putting a loved one in your pocket is eloquently obvious enough as far as imagery goes, but there are implications. On one hand, "There's no way out, now," so you're feeling trapped, suffocated. On the other hand, "Put it in the safe and lock it, `cause it's home, sweet home" advocates protecting the union from outside influences beyond your control. "What to do?" the lyrics wonder. If you haven't asked yourself that question, you haven't been in love.


Three songs that are not quite as savory:

1.“There’s No Room for You Here”

This song is ill. To find out what is wrong, please listen to White Blood Cells, track one, “Dead Leaves on a Dirty Ground.” Afterwards, listen to this song. Jack pulled an "Ice Ice Baby" or "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" on himself.

2."Well, It’s True That We Love One Another”

This is that tri-et at the end with Holly Golightly. The critics fawned over this song without really wondering why it was there. Well, I’m wondering. Holly: “Meg, do you think Jack really loves me?” Meg: “You know I don’t care ‘cause Jack really bugs me.” You know I don’t care 'cause this song really bugs me.

3.“I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself”

Wow, what a song. But it’s been recorded before. By the musician who wrote it. And it’s way better that way. Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” is the only cover that successfully took the original in a to a place its creator never could have imagined or intended. I wonder what Dylan thought about that, when he finished listening to Electric Ladyland, this giant acid tranquilizer of an album, and then towards the end there’s your little folksy protest song, but you hardly recognize it because it’s had an Extreme Makeover: mad-manic-music-genius-peaking-on-ten-different-drugs edition. But back to the Stripes. A Costello cover doesn’t belong on your most ambitious, sweeping album yet, especially since it boasts at least seven cover-worthy songs of its own.

EDIT UPON EDIT (Correction)

Oops. "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself" was not written by Elvis Costello. It was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. And in addition to Costello, it has also been covered by Smokey Robinson, Dionne Warwick, and Dusty Springfield. Despite my foolish negligence to research (until now), I maintain that Costello's version (and probably Robinson's, Warwick's, and Springfield's) is far superior to the White Stripes' and that I would have prefered that Jack left it off the album in favor of a revved-up punk cover of "We're Going to be Friends."


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