White Stripes fans weren’t prepared for what Jack White had up his sleeve for this 2005 release. Just when we were getting used to the band’s blues and garage rock driven sound, they put out an album where it’s almost entirely absent. There are moments when you think this isn’t a White Stripes album at all, rather some strange, experimental songs put together by Jack with some of them having traces of the popular band. Even if this is true, the album still comes off very well, even if you have to set it aside and let the whole thing grow on you.
Jack White has always played around with various sounds and playing piano on the past albums, but it completely takes over here. You suspect this album won’t be like their others from the opener “Blue Orchid.” Even though there are awesome riffs, there’s something about the song that’s different. It’s a bit darker for sure and it sounds like straight up rock and roll more than anything else, but the change doesn’t seem so drastic. That is until you get to “The Nurse.”
I used to hate this song only because the music is so disjointed on the entire thing. It begins with a marimba that gives off this tropical feel at times, like something you should be hearing while sitting on a beach. After awhile a short guitar riff will violently play, but what throws you off is it always plays at different beats. It’s not steady and it’s hard to keep track of if you don’t know the song well. But after awhile it begins to grows on you; even I’ve come around to it. It’s now one of the most enjoyable White Stripes songs for me.
The sonic experiments don’t stop there. Another song that sounds like nothing else the band has ever done is “Little Ghost.” In short, it’s a backwoods country song that talks about falling in love with a ghost. Now it doesn’t seem like such a big deal because Jack has done country inspired songs both on his own and with The Raconteurs, but at the time it was the weirdest thing ever to come from the musician. This was another song I truly hated and while I still don’t listen to it, I can appreciate it a little more. There are also songs where changes are as simple as taking away key instruments. There are few songs here where it’s only Jack and a piano and they’re really quite stunning.
One of the most interesting tracks here is “White Moon,” which features mainly piano and some light drumming from Meg. But what makes it so intriguing are the lyrics that constantly refer to classic Hollywood actress Rita Hayworth. The song is rumored to be about bad past relationships and his obsession with the actress. Many also speculate that it’s actually about ex-wife Meg White. It’s not that far fetched especially when you consider the last seen in Under the Great White Northern Lights, where Jack and Meg are sitting at a piano, while this song plays. By the end, Meg has broken out into tears. No matter what it’s actually about it’s still a heartbreaking song.
The closest you’ll get to the classic Stripes sound is on “Instinct Blues” and “Red Rain.” The former song has a similar format to their older song “Aluminum:” while there are lyrics, it really shows off Jack’s guitar skills. As the title suggests, there is a hint of blues here, but it’s rock music that mainly takes over the distorted, raw riff. “Red Rain” on the other hand has zero blues influence, but is more tuned to their garage rock roots. The riff is intense and also the most brutal and aggressive thing heard on the record so far. There are more hints of their sound on songs like “The Denial Twist” and “Take Take Take,” which is another track centered on Rita Hayworth, but otherwise it’s as if they were trying to reinvent the band.
The record as a whole has this air of mystery to it; a lot of the songs are drastically different from what the band had down previously, but also a lot of the songs are difficult to figure out. Songs like “Passive Manipulation” and “Blue Orchid” have these ambiguous lyrics that make the listener sit and think about the meaning if they so choose to. The White Stripes have always been enigmatic, but they push it even further with this album. In a way it makes the entire experience more interesting because it allows the listener to apply their own meaning to the tracks. Besides, isn’t that the fun of music?
Overall, the album gets 8/10. While I don’t think it’s their best album, it’s definitely their most intriguing. This is where the band tosses away their previous blues and garage rock influences and embrace different instruments and sounds. It may take a while for the record to grow on you, but over time you appreciate it. Also, it seems that the album has aged extremely well; it just gets better over time. Its a record like this that shows why The White Stripes were and still are one of the most loved bands around.