They’re back. After the aberration that was Get Behind Me Satan (in my ears, a working through of demons – yes, demons), Jack and Meg have gone back to what they do best, kicking arse. Satan saw some funky tunes, My Doorbell and The Denial Twist being the best, but the focus shifted there to a much more experimental sonic palette, with all those pianos and marimbas.
Here, having become a Pearly King and Queen for the cover, namechecking redheads throughout the disc and generally having a right old rave-up, the band have released their fun side again. Gone are the serious sentiments on fame and fear, back are the slightly creepy sibling posturings (Rag and Bone) and wild blues rock freak-outs like Bone Broke, Little Cream Soda, Catch Hell Blues and the absolutely stunning title track; yet there’s an even older element here.
When I first listened to Elephant, I felt that this was the band’s White Album – everything they’d ever done was represented – their pop side, whimsy, raucous blues, epic guitar work outs, the usual cover, and some rather wonderfully cryptic lyrics. What Icky Thump does almost as well is to cover the other parts of their back catalogue: the yearning of Hotel Yorba and Dead Leaves shine out from 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues, I’m Slowly Turning Into You, and A Martyr For My Love To You; the fury of Death Letter, the knowing power of Little Room and the sheer rush of Fell In Love With A Girl are channeled in Icky Thump.
The most notable moment is that title track – I heard it on the radio at work, and never has a song made the entire team stop work, listen incredulously and either hate it, love it, or scratch their heads in bewilderment. A dirty chug and thump, a classic Stripes riff and then some mindbendingly weird guitar/organ trills and fills, which sound almost medieval, drop jaws – a perfect backdrop for sardonic vitriol (“Why don’t you kick yourself out/you’re an immigrant too/who’s using who?/what should we do?/well you can’t be a pimp and a prostitute too?”) and a scene setting showstealer for the new Jack White guitar hero lesson.
Still, we mustn’t forget Meg, whose drums aren’t that simple – she’s not exactly Bill Bruford or Neil Peart, but she has groove, swing, power and does just enough to frame and support Jack’s wild side. As a singer, her voice is more of an enigma than Mr Gillis’s, but the Scottish mini-suite wouldn’t be as effective with Jack reciting St Andrew (This Battle Is In The Air).
However, my favourite, downright classic Stripes track is the blinding Conquest. A mariachi trumpet/guitar duel? Come off it, it couldn’t work, right? Well, it most certainly does. Jumping out of the blocks with an elemental howl, right in the classic blues wailer style, The White Stripes’s traditional cover version (almost every album has a cover, my favourite being Death Letter from De Stijl), along with this album, should cement their place in the blues, rock and pop pantheons. They’ve come so far that now, they can do what they want, and this is the sound of Jack and Meg realising that the past doesn’t have to be left behind; brave experimentation aside, refinement is just as valid an artistic direction.
8/10 – It’s already becoming an obsessive listen, but misses out on a 9 by having a couple of tracks near the end that drag, slightly. Still, it’s going to be an important disc for many, many years to come.