If The White Stripes are remembered for one song, that song will almost certainly be “Seven Nation Army.” The opening track to their fourth album Elephant is one of the great guitar hooks in rock history, ranking beside “Satisfaction,” “Smoke On The Water,” and “Whole Lotta Love.” It’s also one of those rare rock songs that has become a stadium anthem around the world. Apart from its impact, it is easily one of the best songs The White Stripes recorded, a tightly coiled ball of menace with the heartbeat of Meg’s drumming pushing it forward relentlessly. And for the first time on a White Stripes album, we get a blistering guitar solo from Jack. But the biggest miracle is that, as terrific as “Seven Nation Army” is, it probably isn’t even the best song on Elephant. The fourth album by The White Stripes is a rock miracle, a back-to-front masterpiece that has at least five classic Stripes tracks, and a pack of album tracks that all feel part of the whole.
Things this time around are noticeably darker than they were on White Blood Cells. Whereas that album existed in the comfort of friendship with some darker corners, Elephant feels far more tightly-wound, as if something is troubling Jack and Meg. There’s a portentous feel to many of the songs, little hints of menace, obsession, and heartbreak that color almost every song. This is reflected in the sound as well. Jack’s solo in “Seven Nation Army” is no anamoly. In fact, several of the songs show Jack’s guitar chops to great effect. His style is squealing and angular, even as it’s bolstered by the roar of his guitar and the thump of Meg’s drumming. That contrast is intoxicating, and it makes the two-piece band sound much larger than they are.
Elephant shows The White Stripes at their very best, displaying all of their strengths with very few of their weaknesses. There’s the punk explosion of “Black Math,” which, when paired with “Seven Nation Army,” makes one of the best one-two punches I’ve ever heard to open an album. There’s the gentle acoustic “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket,” a tender-sounding song with a dark obsessive lyric. The obtuse minimalism of “The Hardest Button To Button” shows how much the band could do with so little melody and rhythm, and a lyric as menacing as it is inexplicable.
And then there’s “Ball and Biscuit,” the axis around which the whole album spins. At over seven minutes long, it is by far the longest song the band would ever record, and it’s a strong contender for the best. While the blues influences of the first two albums felt somewhat borrowed, like a band that just wanted to play the blues as truthfully as they could, “Ball and Biscuit” is The White Stripes making the blues their own. The swaggering sexy lyric is mostly spoken, while a chugging blues riff plays in the background. But then between verses comes the full-on assault of Jack’s guitar work. The sheer power of the whole song is undeniable, and although it was never released as a single it remains a fan favorite.
“Seven Nation Army” and “Ball and Biscuit” are two stone-cold classics, and any band would love to have two such songs on any album. But Elephant doesn’t stop there. I would rank “Black Math,” “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself,” and “The Hardest Button To Button” right up with those tracks. And then there are all of the album tracks, which are almost uniformly excellent. By themselves they might not amount to something special, but where they lie in the album gives them considerable power. Meg’s first lead vocal in “In The Cold, Cold Night” would feel slight elsewhere, but coming after the thunder and lightning of the first four songs it becomes extremely effective. “Little Acorns,” with its opening from radio personality Mort Crim, would be a strange roaring detour on its own, but coming after “The Hardest Button To Button” it signals the transition into the energetic final sequence in the album. The only song that isn’t totally acquitted is “It’s True That We Love One Another,” the goofy closing track. It’s a fun song, but it’s cutesy back-and-forth feels like it’s from a completely different planet from everything else here. But it barely registers as a blemish on an otherwise towering album. Elephant is the best album The White Stripes would ever record, one of the defining rock albums of the 21st Century. It’s the culmination of everything the band was good at, and it turned them from garage rock darlings into genuine rock stars.
Alone In My Home (In which Nate shares his personal connection with Jack White’s albums):
If it’s not obvious already, Elephant is one of my very favorite albums, up there with Weezer’s first album and Achtung Baby. It also served as my introduction to The White Stripes, after reading Rolling Stone’s five-star review and seeking it out on my own. I won’t pretend it was love at first listen, but to my radio-rock early-2ooo’s ears it sounded like nothing I’d ever heard. After all these years it is the album of theirs that I listen to the most, and the one that would be in my desert island album collection. Fun story: the first time I felt old was when I watched The Social Network and realized they used “Ball and Biscuit” to evoke a specific time and place, the far-off age of 2003.
Steady As She Goes (In which Nate ranks all of Jack White’s albums as he reviews them):
2. White Blood Cells
3. De Stijl
4. The White Stripes