Musicheads Essentials: The White Stripes - Elephant

The White Stripes' fourth full-length album, Elephant.
The White Stripes' fourth full-length album, Elephant. (Courtesy of V2 Records)
  1. Listen Musicheads Essentials: The White Stripes - Elephant

    Apr 1, 2013

In the Indian proverb of the blind men and the elephant, each man feels a different part of the elephant, thus concluding that their specific portion is emblematic of the elephant as a whole. For instance, one man touches the elephant's leg, and announces that an elephant is like a tree trunk, and so on. Although each man's sensation is an accurate representation of the elephant's physical qualities, it is only through their shared experiences that the entirety of the elephant can be known.

If one listens to any one album by the White Stripes, they will hear a different shade of the band. One might listen to De Stijl and say, "This is a band that fuses blues with bubblegum pop!" One might listen to White Blood Cells and think, "This is a garage rock band!" A listener to Get Behind Me Satan would say, "Wow, these guys really dig piano ballads," while the Icky Thump listener will observe, "These are gigantic songs, made to be played in arenas!" All of these perceptions are accurate, which is part of what made the White Stripes one of the most intriguing and perplexing artists of the last decade; yet for all their elusiveness and apparent shape-shifting, the entirety of the band is really only visible on one album and one album alone: Elephant.

Elephant is an essential record, not merely because it captures the full sonic width of a fascinating artist, but is also a vital document from the alternative rock "revival" of the early 2000s. Consider the point in time the album was released: the first wave of the "The" bands had swept through in 2001-02: the Strokes, the Vines, and the Hives (if it seems like a cliche to see these four bands listed together yet again, I'll remind you that this is how it was widely billed at the time; one of Entertainment Weekly's Entertainers of the Year in 2002 was a four-way tie between these four "The" bands). As with any rock movement, the glow of the early days had begun to wear off, and it was the first real opportunity to see whether any of these bands had staying power (never mind that Elephant was the Stripes' fourth full-length).

The opening salvo to the album, "Seven Nation Army," garnered buzz from the beginning, and has only grown in stature over the ensuing decade. At first, the big revelation was that the seven-note intro seemed to announce that the White Stripes had added a bass line (!!) to one of their songs. In characteristic Stripes playfulness, it wound up not being a bass, but rather one of Jack's semi-acoustic guitars being filtered through pedals, but in any case, it was a hook that made an immediate impact, helping to bridge the alternative scene with the mainstream. As years passed, the song's hook became appropriated by sports fans, and it's become a fixture of sporting events around the world, transcending all language barriers. "Seven Nation Army" is the Voyager record of the 2000s; it will outlive us all. In the year 3003, at whatever form of gladatorial sporting contests are being held, fans will be chanting those seven notes. But for as accessible and fan-friendly as the opening track was, the rest of the album offered plenty more unique surprises.

One of Elephant's most impressive strengths was the way it took the band's carefully constructed mythos (their black-and-red color scheme, oddbal recording experiments, Jack and Meg's ambiguous relationship) and, rather than retreating, built upon this mythos in new and creative ways. Even now, it's striking not only how strange Elephant is in places, but how that strangeness has its own internal consistency in the band's history. There's an off-the-beaten-path choice for a cover, the Bacharach/David standard "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself," a spoken word bit by a Detroit radio host (Mort Crim's oddly comforting monologue to introduce "Little Acorns") and Meg even gets to sing a couple of songs, "In the Cold, Cold Night" and the Meg/Jack/Holly Golightly menage-a-trois, "Well It's True That We Love One Another." At no point did you ever look at the White Stripes and get the impression that everything was meant to be taken seriously; while that wink-wink element can be grating to some people, it also keeps the band grounded in their own weird universe.

If you're a fan of the bluesier side of the White Stripes, there's the seven-minute "Ball and Biscuit," which features not one, not two, but three epic guitar solos, each different from the last. If you prefer the thunking power riffs that recall "Fell in Love with a Girl," there's the furious, fast-paced "Black Math," "Hypnotize," and "Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine," which also gets bonus points for being the only pop song on record to devise a decent rhyme for 'acetaminophen.' The gentler, acoustic midsection predicts the path they'd further explore on Get Behind Me Satan, and the puppy-love romance of "I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother's Heart" is a worthy sequel to "We're Going to Be Friends." The band's instrumental palette is still mostly guitar and drums, with a few incursions by organ and piano, but their sound is deeper and richer than anything they'd recorded before. A good example of this is "There's No Home for You Here," which lovingly lifts from the band's own "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" (my college station's music director noted on our promo copy that "Track #3 is a total Dead Leaves rehash")—but whereas in "Dead Leaves," Jack largely hammered away at the same chord progression for three minutes, "There's No Home..." tacks on weird new flourishes such as the Freddie Mercury-esque vocal breakdown. More than any other White Stripes album, Elephant holds up in terms of both songs and sound from start to finish.

Of all the four "The" bands of the early 2000s, the White Stripes had by far the most successful career in both the critical and commercial sense, and even took the opportunity to exit on their own terms, announcing their breakup in 2011. Their influence is evident not only in artists like the Black Keys, (who existed for most of the 2000s as a sort of parallel universe counterpoint, before going on to eclipse even the Stripes in the commercial hemisphere) but also with the myriad DIY garage/independent auteur projects of the contemporary scene (consider the obsessive meticulousness of Tame Impala's Kevin Parker, and note that one of his showcase singles was called..."Elephant.")

Elephant is essential because it's the essential document of an essential band. Their other five studio albums are no less invaluable, and indeed, each has its own power. One could easily argue that White Blood Cells or De Stijl or even Icky Thump is the essential White Stripes album, but none encompasses the full breadth of what made them them a great band quite like Elephant. It was a record built to last, and has proven indeed to be unforgettable.

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