The Neglected Canon #7

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Sunday 30th June 2017

The White Stripes – Get Behind Me Satan

When White Stripes released their fifth studio album, 2005’s Get Behind Me Satan, it was met with confusion tinged with disappointment. This week’s entry is therefore not so much the neglected but the wrongly swinged. After the commercial and critical success of Elephant, fans and critics alike were hoping for basically more of the same, which is typical of the shortsighted consumerist pop music market. However, The White Stripes were never a pop music act, they were just consumed by a pop music audience who were fooled into liking the blues.

For an atheist, I spend a weird amount of time with my Bible. The phrase “Get thee behind me, Satan” appears a few times in the New Testament, and is a rejection of the Earthly temptations in exchange for the transcendent. Tempted though Jack White may have been to phone it in, churn out Elephant 2 and recuperate on a bed of Benjamins, he eschewed the expectations and hopes of the slack jawed philistines and did what he fucking wanted. Get thee behind me indeed sir.

Jack White continues to be one of the most accomplished and eclectic songwriters of a generation, and his recording career has illuminated the link between modern pop and rock music and the blues for many fans.  He offers some of the most interesting blues influenced rock at the helm of various vessels, and though The White Stripes are sadly no more, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather, Jack’s solo career, and Third Man Records all remain well burnished with exciting collaborations, good songwriting, and a conscientious and studious – if lo-fi –work ethic.

The album opens with Blue Orchid, which darkened and electrified the riff heavy elements of Elephant, and was thus unsurprisingly the lead single. But as I’ve already highlighted, the obvious continuations of what Elephant had represented have never wanted for justification, so I’ll move swiftly on. The Nurse is an experiment in Jack’s evolving taste for world music textures, on which guitar and drums do appear, but are far from the focal points of the song. This track, like the album title, appears to be a playful message for the listener: be careful who you let in, because the nurse that gives you Seven Nation Army, may also smuggle in marimbas, mandolins, and intricate internal rhyming schemes as well.

The extent to which this record was a backlash against Elephant and its legacy continues in album highlight Take, Take, Take, in which Jack narrates a chance encounter with famous (long dead) Hollywood superstar Rita Hayworth, which escalates from passive shock and amusement to asking her for pictures, autographs, and a kiss on the cheek: “I wouldn’t wash it for a week”. All this is punctuated by the faux-easygoing refrain of “that was all that I needed”, even as it becomes increasingly and uncomfortably clear that at each stage of the meeting, the overweening fan wants more and more from the put-upon starlet. When Rita finally engineers an escape, Jack whines in oppressive stereo mixing, that it was “almost as if she did not appreciate how cool I was being”. In the self-same verse though, he breathlessly demands a lock of her hair. On the one hand, it is easy to feel annoyed by this kind of sentiment, whether it’s from Jack White in the wake of one of the defining albums of the Noughties, which rocketed him to international success and fame, or from others, such as Radiohead on their bitterly regretful response to Creep, My Iron Lung. After all, nobody forced them to write those songs. However, navigating the often choppy waters of audience demand, perhaps especially as the most integral component of a double act in White’s case, is no easy task, not often helped by the undesirable incursion of market economics into the artistic sphere. Even as Jack, with tongue firmly in cheek, pre-emptively teases his critics, he does offer up a batch of songs that has great value despite the context.

This album also contains the best of the Stripes’ ‘Little’ songs, Little Ghost, in which Jack falls in love with a little ghost over an energetic mandolin. While on one level this could be read as another commentary on the difficult imagined relationships between artist and audience, on the most basic level, it’s just a really fun number about a cute ghost. What’s not to like? Additionally, it’s a damn sight better than Elephant’s little track, Little Acorns, which resulted in the annoying old-timey radio journalist Mort Crim getting far more studio credit on the album than he deserved.

The experimentation with piano and other more exotic keyboards, the lyrical inventiveness, the venomous slide guitars, and the vitality of the live space all build on new ground. And why not? Elephant was well out of the pair’s systems two years on. There are songs on Satan that could have appeared on that album, anyway: Blue Orchid, Red Rain, and Instinct Blues are all crafted in the same vein as There’s No Home For You Here or Black Math; meanwhile, White Moon, and I Ain’t that Lonely Yet sit comfortably alongside I want to be the Boy, and You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket.

If, like the majority of major music journalism outlets, you dismissed this album in 2005, I urge you, after more than a decade, to revisit the LP.