Icky Thump, the final studio album by the White Stripes, gives us a glimpse of the band’s trajectory if they hadn’t broken up four years later. It’s the band’s most complex album, with the most advanced songwriting and the biggest moments. While it is clearly in the same vein as the early bashed-out blues songs as their debut, here it all feels much more thought-out and intentional. Icky Thump was the result of several albums of growth and maturity, including three straight barn-burning albums that pushed the two-piece band to places people never thought possible. That also goes for the band themselves, who were now rock giants in a landscape where such things were becoming rare. In that context, Icky Thump feels like a logical progression, and it’s fascinating to hear it forge new territory all while feeling like a definite product of The White Stripes.
The most distinct thing about Icky Thump is something that it’s taken me years to notice: the songs are all longer. This might not seem like a big deal, but bear in mind that The White Stripes built their legend on the shoulders of bashed-out garage punk and blues standards, a rough unstudied kind of music that was often over in a minute or two. But here the songs are all given a lot more room to form in traditional ways, and sometimes in unexpected ones. One only has to look at the titular opening track, which doubled as the lead single. Its stomping beat and squealing keyboards could only be the work of one band, but listen how it hangs around for over four minutes. There’s a lot more room for contrast and lead breaks. In other words, a somewhat more traditional rock structure. “Icky Thump” would go on to be The White Stripe’s only Top 40 song, the kind that only they could write.
Since the album allows its songs to breathe, it results in a lot of tracks that would never have worked on a quick-and-dirty album like, say, White Blood Cells. Let’s take a look at “300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues.” This song begins with a groovy guitar line that seems almost sleepy by the band’s standards. That guitar line anchors the whole song, but it travels between oddly confessional lyrics, squealing solos, thunderous riffs, and back to the quiet shuffle of its hook. It all takes over five minutes to unspool, and it ends up being one of the best songs on the album. Elsewhere, on tracks like “I’m Slowly Turning Into You” and “A Martyr For My Love For You” they indulge in songs with extended codas. “I’m Slowly Turning Into You” ends with the White Stripes equivalent of “Hey Jude’s” “na-na-na” denouement, which is remarkable for a band that never had much use for outros before.
Some of the wild experimentation from Get Behind Me Satan is still evident here. The weirdest moment has to go to the frantic Celtic beat of “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn,” another slow burn that uses the next track to induce a bagpipe-fueled freakout. The whole thing sounds like “Battle of Evermore” played at too many RPM, and I don’t mean that as a bad thing. There’s also the cover of Patti Page’s 1950s song “Conquest.” It opens with what could only be called an assault of Latin brass and Jack’s guttural howl. Even when the band doesn’t indulge in such weird instrumentation, they still find time for weird side paths like “Rag and Bone,” itself almost a skit with Jack and Meg as junk collectors who take everyone else’s garbage, no doubt an intentional metaphor.
Through all of this Icky Thump still manages to be one of The White Stripes most muscular albums. “Bone Broke” and “Little Cream Soda” are absolutely punishing songs, hearkening back to the band’s debut. They feel more thought out and constructed than anything on that release, but they rock harder than anything the band had done on Get Behind Me Satan. Although Icky Thump finds a lot of nuance in its songwriting it never sacrifices brawn. Drama is found in contrast, and there’s plenty of that to go around here. Even Meg’s drumming is given more to do, meaning she deviates considerably from the standard bashing she favored on earlier albums.
The cynical response to all of this is to view Icky Thump as a mainstream play, and songs like “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As Your Told)” make that hard to deny. It’s an album by rock stars, not by little indie darlings. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a sellout. This is still a distinctly White Stripes album, filled with all the weird flourishes and rough edges for which the band had become famous. In hindsight it’s easy to view the album with a little bit of sadness, since we now know it would be the band’s last real statement. But that sadness comes because Icky Thump is such a bracing album, a way forward for the little duo that could to transition to a future of rock mega-stardom. We’ll just have to satisfy ourselves with a remarkable streak of rock albums in the twilight of rock’s heyday.
Alone In My Home (In which Nate shares his personal connection with Jack White’s albums):
There’s something exciting about becoming a fan of an artist, and then getting to experience a new album release as a fan. Icky Thump served that role for me, giving it a special place in my heart. Still, its relatively more mainstream structure means that it sometimes gets underrated by a lot of people, myself included. Back in the days when I used iTunes to manage my music, I was surprised to one day discover that Icky Thump was at that point my most-played album. Even today, as I listened to the album in preparation for this essay, I found myself surprised at its power and scope. I still like Elephant better, but Icky Thump is another formational album for me.
Steady As She Goes (In which Nate ranks all of Jack White’s albums as he reviews them):
2. Icky Thump
3. Get Behind Me Satan
4. White Blood Cells
5. De Stijl
6. Broken Boy Soldiers
7. The White Stripes