Thursday, July 14, 2005

The White Stripes-- Get Behind Me Satan


In the film The Five Obstructions, moviemaker Lars von Trier challenges his former teacher, Jorgen Leth, to a sort of brainy cinematic game. The task is simple: Leth must remake one of his own films, but, in doing so, he must submit to a series of rules and regulations imposed by von Trier. Though one is tempted to view the exercise as just another cruel example of von Trier’s sadism, Leth soon discovers that his former pupil’s restrictions are actually inspiring his creativity. Confinement and limitation, he finds, can sometimes give birth to great works of art.

Jack and Meg White—collectively known as the White Stripes—are also believers in this principle. And they don’t even need Lars von Trier breathing down their necks to keep them disciplined; over the course of their career, the Whites have always devised and adhered to their own self-imposed rules and restrictions, and, thus far, their little game has yielded much success.

Now, with the release of Get Behind Me Satan, the Stripes have raised the hurdle higher than ever before. Forcing themselves to complete the album in a mere three weeks time, Jack and Meg recorded the album with the intention of proving the old music adage that an artist’s demo is usually better than the final album. To gauge their success, though, one must first decide exactly how the final product should be measured; though the individual tracks are mostly strong, with just a few sounding undercooked, the Stripes seem to have built their house without ever constructing the foundation. This collection sounds far too much like… well, a collection— lacking in focus and cohesion—rather than an actual album.

Not surprisingly, minimalism is the name of the game. Most of these tracks are rendered here in the barest of settings: “Blue Orchid,” the dynamite first single, is nothing more than fuzzy metal riffs and Jack’s gleeful falsetto; “My Doorbell,” an old-fashioned R&B number that could almost pass for a lost Jackson Five rarity, is fashioned from just piano and drums; “Forever for Her (It’s Over for Me)” is a brooding ballad played on piano, acoustic guitar, and hand percussion; “Little Ghost” is a rollicking bluegrass number, featuring just acoustic guitar and tambourine.

The Stripes dig their shovels in deep to uncover the heart of these songs, and, more often than not, their minimalism results in moments of unencumbered passion and musical clarity. Unfortunately, these moments also sound like they’re all taken from different albums. Though “White Moon,” “Instinct Blues,” and “Passive Manipulation” work well together as a seamless suite, the record ultimately lacks a real center, and, it seems, a sense of purpose.

In fact, besides the production, the only thing that lends these songs any sense of cohesion is Jack’s lyrical focus. Though he’s stated that the album is about “characters and the ideal of truth” (whatever), it’s really an album about betrayal and the complexities of love. Song titles like “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)” speak for themselves, but others, like “The Nurse,” take a more obtuse path, using sometimes-absurd imagery to convey feelings of paranoia and disillusionment. The singer in “Little Ghost” is in love with an apparition, while “My Doorbell” is a by-the-numbers tale of unrequited love. The only song that seems thematically out of place is “Take, Take, Take,” an otherwise excellent song about the trappings of celebrity, haunted by the ghost of Rita Hayworth.

It’s just one great idea on an album full of them. Unfortunately, all these great ideas never quite add up into something that holds together as a unified piece of art. Chalk this one up as a transition record. Or perhaps a noble, entertaining experiment. Whatever you call it, there’s no denying that there are few rock bands out there who are taking as many exciting hairpin turns as The White Stripes, who prove once again that they’ve got quite a bit of the devil in them.

(Originally posted by Josh Hurst at Reveal.)

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