When does classicism become conservatism? The question shadows the White Stripes, a Detroit rock duo who have made a career of resisting modernity, from putting out vinyl-only releases to giving finger-wagging interviews bemoaning twenty-first-century genres like rap-metal. With its starkly minimalist production and a CD cover picturing drummer Meg White draped in a white gown that could have been pulled from Coal Miner’s Daughter, the White Stripes’ fourth album, Elephant, seems perfectly in tune with the band’s retro coda.
But the White Stripes have never swallowed nostalgia whole, or rather they’ve digested so many influences—from Dolly Parton to Led Zeppelin—that it’s impossible to think of them as anything but modern. And they derive considerable power from flirting with disasters that doom artists—mainly cutesiness and sentimentality—and then pulling away as the embrace seems certain.
Elephant embodies this high-wire act with stunning success. It is stranger, thornier, and meaner than anything in the band’s past. The album’s most powerful song, “There’s No Home for You Here,” conveys a brutal hopelessness; “Little Acorns” begins with a fifties-style PSA about the resilience of squirrels and then morphs into a frenzied howl about the excesses of modernity. And the cover of Bacharach and David’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” is less a tribute than a desiccation; Jack White delivers the song in a creepy Tiny Tim trill.
The greatest accomplishment of Elephant, though, is the expanded sense of sonic possibilities explored by the band. The White Stripes explode their own formula: Sledgehammer guitar riffs, clutter-and-crash drumming, give way to sinister electric-guitar-fed bottom and most memorably, Jack’s “ahhhhh!” stretched and multitracked to psychedelic heights on “There’s No Home for You Here.” It’s no wall of sound but a roomful of garage-rock conventions collapsing in on themselves.
Like Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy, which channeled Phil Spector and the Beach Boys through a fuzzbox, Elephant is a testament to the power of looking backward—not going back to basics but tapping into the primal force of rock. This has always been evident in the White Stripes’ live shows—where Jack exhibits the wild-eyed energy of Jerry Lee Lewis or Johnnie Ray—but not in its albums, which have been tempered by a two-dimensional sound. With Elephant, the White Stripes’ primordial stomp through rock history at last comes thrillingly to life. (The White Stripes play the Hammerstein Ballroom on April 19, with Loretta Lynn opening.)