You got a reaction, didn’t you? – Get Behind Me Satan (2005)

get-behind-me-satan

After rising to genuine rock star status after Elephant, the White Stripes used their follow-up as an opportunity to take a hard left turn. Get Behind Me Satan is a weird album that opens with several songs that don’t sound anything like earlier White Stripes albums. Over a decade removed from its original release, it still stands as the strangest album the band would ever record. 

Revisiting it after listening to the first four albums in order, Get Behind Me feels even more different from its predecessors. The biggest reason is that it largely eschews big guitar riffs. The ones it indulges in, like those on lead single “Blue Lotus”, sound more processed and warlbling. It’s not that they lose the DIY aesthetic of the previous albums, but there seems to be some playfulness in the sound that was never there before. The other key guitar tracks are “Red Rain,” which wobbles around like it’s had a few too many, and “Instinct Blues,” the only hint at the band’s blues influence, and a somewhat perfunctory one at that. It’s the acoustic guitar that gets a little more of a workout, whether its the frantic Appalachian anthem “Little Ghost” or the vaguely Latin-sounding “Take, Take, Take.”

But the most notable addition to the White Stripes sound is the piano, which pops up all over the place. While it was used to lesser effect on a couple of older tracks, here it’s used to its fullest potential. The most striking example is “My Doorbell,” a welcome return to the sunny songs of White Blood Cells. There’s also the jaunty “Denial Twist” and the brooding “White Moon.” All of those songs have the energy the White Stripes were known for, but they also sound altogether different from anything the band had done before. It’s like the band is painting with an altogether different set of colors, no matter how much black, white, and red they use on their album cover.

The most striking song comes early. “The Nurse” doesn’t even bother with the piano, and cuts right away to the marimba, of all things. The paranoid lyrics sound like they could have come from Elephant, but the thundering stabs of guitar and bashing uneven drums make it. Sequencing it so early in the album is a bold move, and it defintely sends the message that the band is up to something altogether new.

The question is, is it good? It definitely is, though to some extent I’m not sure it matters. Everything here feels like a conscious decision to defy expectations, and on that count it succeeds admirably. But there is a sense that the band is pushing against the confines they had set for themselves. You can see this in songs like “Forever For Her (Is Over For Me),” which blends all sorts of sounds into something altogether new, and not something the feels as straightforward as the White Stripes usually are. If anything it hints at Jack White’s solo career, which wouldn’t start in earnest for another seven years. The White Stripes were formed with a lot of rules in place on how they would do things, and Get Behind Me Satan hints that those rules might be constraining.

But then those rules were always self-imposed, a way to do more with less. Such rules can be broken if they need to, and however they applied here, the results are definitely striking. Get Behind Me Satan is not as immediately accessible as White Blood Cells and not as powerful as Elephant, but it’s right up there with the best the band did. It’s a weird detour, and that’s a pretty special thing in itself, precisely because it’s so different while still being distinctly White Stripes.

Alone In My Home (In which Nate shares his personal connection with Jack White’s albums):
This was the first White Stripes album I bought, which kind of dulled its impact for me as the weird eclectic album it is. It still maintains its sidetrack status though, being the sort of album that I love but forget to listen to sometimes. Nevertheless, it will always hold a special place in my heart. I think my favorite track might be “Little Ghost,” if only because I once spotted the band playing it live on a cable special. It’s a great album, and one that keeps revealing just how versatile the White Stripes were.

Steady As She Goes (In which Nate ranks all of Jack White’s albums as he reviews them):
1. Elephant
2. Get Behind Me Satan
3. White Blood Cells
4. De Stijl
5. The White Stripes

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