Back In School Again – De Stijl (2000)

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Listening to De Stijl after the White Stripes’ debut is like watching a pitcher with a great arm suddenly figure out how to be way more accurate. Everything about De Stijl is far more precise and focused. Rather than a powerful roar of distortion, Jack White’s guitar work is much more detailed and nuanced. This is a giant leap forward for The White Stripes, and a strong blueprint for their future albums.

De Stijl takes its name from a Dutch artistic movement of the same name, started in 1917. It emphasized purity of shape and form, generally focusing on abstract shapes. The movement also focused on black, white, and primary colors. I confess that just about everything I know about this movement is limited to what I can read on Wikipedia, but at first glance it’s not hard to see what Jack White liked about this, and how it fit into the world of The White Stripes. In particular, De Stijl (the album) is more conscientiously minimalist than its predecessor. It harkens back to the basic roots of rock, especially blues music, and draws more attention to the stark guitar lines and basic drum beats. Even while it colors in the corners with some new instrumental flourishes like harmonica and violin, it feels more spare and intentional in its approach.

The White Stripes’ debut was already pretty heavy-handed with its blues influence, but here those qualities are cranked way up. This is definitely the blusiest album The White Stripes would ever record. It doubles down on the sliding guitar chords, and riffs on those chords far more elaborately. There still isn’t any of the virtuoso soloing we would hear from White eventually, but the influence here makes for some of the strongest statements The White Stripes would make. Nowhere is this more noticeable than on the centerpiece of the whole album, their cover of Son House’s “Death Letter.” It’s an obvious highlight, both from the album and the band’s whole career. It’s loaded with tempo changes, guitar slides, and a surprisingly spry beat from Meg, who keeps the whole thing popping along. Elsewhere there is the squawking harmonica solo from “Hello Operator” and the woozy “Sister, Do You Know My Name?”, both of which are also choice cuts.

De Stijl also has a couple of tracks that more overtly demonstrate the White Stripes punk influence. Again, this influence was also apparent on The White Stripes, but here it feels more focused. “Let’s Build A Home” in particular surges with its grimy riff and blasting drumbeat. Likewise, “Jumble Jumble” channels the energy from the debut into something much more focused. These parts of the album are a little less interesting than the bluesier material, although most of the album hits its stride by layering blues with a punk aesthetic. It’s a potent combo, but at this point the band is still leaning on their blues chops more than anything else. There are times when it sounds a lot like a lo-fi version of Led Zeppelin. Not a bad comparison to be sure, but one that is less distinct that where they would later arrive.

But it’s still a much stronger album than The White Stripes. The biggest reason is just that the songwriting has improved immensely. There was nothing on their debut as catchy as “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl)” or “Hello Operator.” It doesn’t quite have the same unbridled fury, but that just means that there is far more variation in the band’s approach. They are already pushing against their self-imposed boundaries, and the results are compelling. De Stijl feels much less samey than the debut, and is a tighter album in general. It’s also a much more direct line to what we would eventually hear from The White Stripes and Jack White. It’s easy to focus on the later albums of The White Stripes, but before they were genuine rock stars we see from De Stijl that they already had a distinct idea of who they were and what they wanted to accomplish.

Alone In My Home (In which Nate shares his personal connection with Jack White’s albums):
De Stijl has evolved into something of a fan favorite, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a fun album, even able to make the reprehensible “Your Southern Can Is Mine” into a jaunty album closer. But at least part of this is a response to the huge response the band would get from their last four albums. For me, De Stijl is where I go when I’ve listened to Elephant just a little too much, but it’s less of an album where I take up residence. I tend to like my blues influence to be a little more subdued (one reason why early Black Keys albums kind of leave me cold), and De Stijl doubles down on that influence. But it’s still a killer album, short and punchy without a bum song.

Steady As She Goes (In which Nate ranks all of Jack White’s albums as he reviews them):
1. De Stijl
2. The White Stripes

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