The White Stripes
Get Behind Me Satan
f you’d stayed away from the press reports that preceded the White Stripes’ latest record, Get Behind Me Satan—the whispers of Jack White stuffing his jackhammer in the closet and writing these songs on piano, acoustic guitar, and marimba exclusively—the first ten seconds of “The Nurse” might get you stirring.
Not only is it perhaps the new record’s best song, but its dark slurs of mystery and doubt provide the skeleton key to the entire album’s brooding once-upon-a-midnight-dreary tone. Dewy with island heat, set in contrast to the song’s cold Gothic undercurrents, White moans and hums atop a marimba and jagged piano runs. Jack’s always been a cryptic songwriter, fond of oblique references and catchy off-the-wall phrasings, but here his metaphors and jests are haunted with regret and suspicion. Purple instead of his usual blue, he is bruised and worn thin. These new songs are character studies of paranoia and distrust, bloody noses and anemic lusts. Lines like “The one that you’re trusting’s / Suspiciously dusting the sill” are rife with this seedy reserve, and they mark an album that both lyrically and musically stands as the White Stripes most enthralling yet, if not their easiest listen.
Musically, for once reality almost lives up to NME-largesse. Jack’s fondness for piano compositions and exotic instrumentation take the fore on Satan, suffusing his stormy tales in appropriately humid backdrops. Their most eccentric album instrumentally, more bound by the tropical blues of Taj Mahal and Paradise and Lunch-era Ry Cooder than Son House and Elmore James, Satan still breathes in that then-as-now modernity that only the White Stripes seem capable of making live as new as old. “Forever for Her (Is Over for Me)” slides along a slow bar-room piano roll, more miramba plonks, and Meg’s slowly advancing drums. One hesitates to take these songs too biographically, and White himself wanted to dissuade such readings with a press release claiming he was aiming for more character-based songwriting. Perhaps Jack doth protest too much though, as, again and again—and I ain’t naming names—broken love takes the fore: “Forever / Just a word that she said that means never to me.”
“White Moon” is a slow piano paean, stinging with maracas, moonlight-sonata piano, and subtle drums. Jack’s lyrics here show a white-horse lucidity akin to the films of Zhang Yimou, aglide on color, fluid motion, and imagistic fantasy. One could imagine him fronting his own Bayou Chapel, swaying the assembly with a sermon rich in cryptic poesy like “Probosocial’s a word / And the word is the bird / That flew through the herd in the snow.”
With much of the new material, Jack for the first time shows the weariness of stardom. There’s a mockery and jibe in his story-telling now, and it’s often aimed at those around him. “Take, Take, Take” is the most obvious illustration, a thinly veiled satire about a fan meeting Rita Hayworth who gains in resolve—from rounding her table, to collecting her lipstick-stain, to asking her for a picture—until he’s gone too far. When Hayworth refuses his final requests, he retreats in fury, insulted and bitter. Right, no second-guessing needed. Gotcha.
But, Satan’s not without previous incarnations of the band. For those of you who don’t need or want any new colors with your Stripes, Jack and Meg have a few throwbacks for you. Opener and lead single “Blue Orchid” throbs with ragged guitar lines and Meg’s frantic rush to keep pace, while “”As Ugly As I Seem” is a return to the simple acoustic childhood strolls of “Apple Blossom” and “We’re Going to Be Friends.” Backed with dim hand drums, Jack’s JM Barrie nostalgia reflects the other side of his new suspicions. Brimming with stark yearning and hesitant youth, the song serves as a reminder of just why we burn so hot on first deceit: there’s always the tabula rasa of youth as base. For a man capable now of writing the withering “The Nurse,” “As Ugly as I Seem” seems like an (un)welcome breeze.
Elsewhere, White’s collaboration with country legend Loretta Lynn last year informs the black Appalachian folk of “Little Ghost.” Jack adopts his best Dukes of Hazzard-drawl and gets all pig-squeal Deliverance on our asses. “Red Red Rain” is a blistering accusation on slide guitar and throaty electrics, a caustic jam where the studio wrinkles his voice through the fury of lines like “You think not telling is the same as not lying don’t you?”
As the rain-stained piano of closer “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)” begins, White toys with double-entendre again, both in verse and intent. The ideal closer for an album of such immeasurable gains for the band, White floats in the delta swamps, baptized by doubt, confusion, and peculiar lusts. The Bible-Belt incests of Faulkner and Styron squirm in these reeds now, and White’s snatched the illusive potency of them both. Given his recent ruckus with Jason Stollsteimer, he doesn’t strike me as a man who’d claim allegiance to the pen over the sword. Luckily with Get Behind Me Satan, White may just have summoned the two at once for the finest album of the White Stripes’ career.