The heavy blues influence on the first two White Stripes albums is well-executed and thrilling, but it does give those albums a sense that they are riffs on a common idea. Jack White is far from the first white boy to discover the blues, and lo-fi aesthetic notwithstanding, the broad sound of those early albums comes off a bit like grimy Zeppelin. It’s really well done, but it’s not quite a unique voice yet.
But all that changes with the first track of The White Stripes’ third album, White Blood Cells. “Dead Leaves On The Dirty Ground” could make a good case for being the quintessential White Stripes song. There’s a blasting riff, an earnest lyric, and that same pounding beat provided by Meg. It sets the tone for what many regard as one of the greatest rock albums of the first decade of the 21st Century. White Blood Cells dials back the overt blues references, instead finding its stride in an explosive diversity of song styles, and nailing just about every one of them.
Aside from “Dead Leaves,” at least two of the next three songs are among the best songs the band would ever record. “Hotel Yorba” is an absolute delight, a stomping acoustic romp through sweet lyrics like “Let’s get married in a big cathedral by a priest/’Cause if I’m the man that you love the most you could say ‘I do’ at least.” Its rousing chorus feels like a shot of musical espresso, uplifting and exhilarating.
But that’s nothing to the attack of “Fell In Love With A Girl,” a remarkable song boosted by an equally remarkable music video that animated the band in Lego bricks. It might be one of the best rock tracks in the last 20 years, a snarling blast of energy that builds on the punk influences hinted at in De Stijl. It’s all over in under two minutes, but it’s such a wild ride that it looms large over the rest of the White Stripes’ work. It’s almost impossible to not be swept up in the “Aaa aaa aaa” refrain at the end of the song.
That’s to say nothing of the other highlights, slightly less well-known songs like “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known” and “I Think I Smell A Rat.” In spite of bursting with sixteen songs, White Blood Cells has legs because its album tracks are all at the very least interesting, and generally are very good. There’s the gentle “We’re Going To Be Friends,” the snarking “Offend In Every Way,” and the bizarre centerpiece of “The Union Forever,” which someone manages to fit in an extended quote from Citizen Kane and make it work.
One thing that makes White Blood Cells work so well is its surprising warmth. The more nimble songwriting allows Jack to embrace a gentler lyrical feel. A lot of the songs are clearly pointing toward relationships, but they rarely feel gooey or maudlin. Instead they feel like people who were already good friends realizing how much they like to be together. There’s a lived-in quality to these relationships, exemplified by the old-married-couple ribbing of “I’m Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman.” It can be tempting in hindsight to view these as a display of Jack’s relationship with Meg, since by this time they were a divorced couple pretending to be siblings. I do think there’s a lightness to the music of The White Stripes that Jack would struggle to capture after they broke up, but it hardly matters, when the songs feel as joyful and lived in as they do here. It’s one of the most accessible albums Jack White has recorded, since its more familial tone allows the stranger experiments to go down smoother. Little wonder that this would be the album to introduce the White Stripes to a wider audience.
Alone In My Home (In which Nate shares his personal connection with Jack White’s albums): This was one of the first White Stripes albums I bought, after my initial purchase of Get Behind Me Satan. It’s sort of like the control for every other White Stripes album. Is it better or worse than White Blood Cells? As such I think it’s in the middle of the pack, just because the weakest tracks all seem clumped at the end (though I do like “Now Mary” quite a bit). But it still holds a special place in my heart, because “We’re Going To Be Friends” was the White Stripes song my wife and I played at our wedding. Its display of innocent friendship, where you share everything you like with another person while experiencing the life together, felt like the perfect summation for my marriage to my best friend.
Steady As She Goes (In which Nate ranks all of Jack White’s albums as he reviews them):
1. White Blood Cells
2. De Stijl
3. The White Stripes