After the 2004 release of her Jack White-produced and critically lauded album, Van Lear Rose, Loretta Lynn posed the question: “For (Jack) to be so great now, what will he be later on? How can an artist whose professed influences are so antiquated keep progressing musically? How long can The White Stripes carefully crafted retro façade ride the wave of modern cool?”
The answers lie in White’s ability to vary the Stripes’ sound from album to album in a way that keeps things fresh without alienating their installed fanbase. Get Behind Me Satan might be a step back from 2003’s Elephant commercially, but it’s a more consistent effort overall. White certainly fulfills the high expectations that come along with being a platinum artist who rock snobs actually respect.
Gone are the face-melting guitars of Elephant. Gone are the anthemic choruses guaranteed to blow up the charts. In their place are parlor pianos, acoustic guitars and the somewhat esoteric marimba. The result is an album more in line with De Stijl, except instead of black bluesman fetishism, White lovingly cribs hillbilly folk.
That’s not to say that White straight-up rips off anyone’s sound; he’s wise enough to incorporate the raw sentiment of his influences into a sound consistent with the Stripes’ approach. You don’t need to know who Mississippi John Hurt or The Carter Family are to appreciate Get Behind Me Satan, but if you do, the album doesn’t come off as disrespectful in the same way bands like Jet offend anyone who’s ever listened to the Stooges.
White eschews commercialism not only with his choice of instrumentation but also with the overall tone of his lyrics. There’s no “Apple Blossom” or “Little Acorns” here to lighten the mood. Even the album’s closer, traditionally a light-hearted respite on Stripes records, takes on a more somber tone with “I’m Lonely (But I’m Not That Lonely Yet).”
Get Behind Me Satan is a step forward for the Stripes, and it certainly ranks up there with their best work, but it’s not the defining, epochal statement befitting a man so talented. The production was rushed, and it shows. “Blue Orchid” is the weakest lead single the Stripes have ever released.
That defining statement needs to come soon for White. Most great bands have never had a four-album run the way the Stripes have since De Stijl, and while he doesn’t appear to be dropping off or walking on a plateau, it might be time for White, arguably our generation’s greatest songwriter, to make a drastic step. If his recently announced collaboration with Brendan Benson and The Greenhornes is as good as it can be, Jack White’s legacy will go down in history alongside his influences. If not, how many more times can Jack and Meg mine musical history?
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars