Rather than take the easy way through the accessibility door that was flung open to them with the surprise success of 2001's White Blood Cells, Jack and Meg White pull a fast one and high-tail it back to the urban ruins where they were spawned. Elephant (V2) is all Detroit Rock City from the dirty, primitive side with the occasional trip into the delta soul. All told, it's a weirder, heavier ride than the group's breakthrough, too inherently idiosyncratic to be easily reined in and placed in a box. It also showcases some of the most hellacious six-string skronk of the year thus far. Evidence: "There's No Home for You Here," a whiplash-inducing ride that careens between brassy T-Rex glam and hushed insistence with an ear-splitting guitar screed thrown in for added emphasis.
Working with a purposefully limited palette (pretty much just guitar, drums and Jack's alternately sweet and dementedly bluesy vocals), the duo flexes considerable creative muscle, resulting in amazingly divergent sounds, textures and moods while pushing hard into unexpected domains.
"Seven Nation Army" gets Elephant off to a gratuitous good time with nothing more than a thick, fuzzy, one-string riff and a simple backbeat. By the time Jack's fractured vocals start emoting, you're hooked. "Black Math" surrenders track economy to a layered, roaring, big muff guitar freakout. Meg takes over the lead vox on "In the Cold, Cold Night" to generally good effect, while Jack manages to invoke old-time values (of a sort) and modern sensibilities even when he's engaging in the most apocalyptic, sexed-up rock this side of Led Zeppelin (check out the straight-up filthy swagger of "Ball and Biscuit"). The irresistibly daft "Hypnotise" updates an oldies theme with smartly spun (and typically cheeky) lyrics and a deliciously cramped guitar sound that would surely get boring old farts like Eric Clapton in a huff.
Elephant closes with "It's True That We Love One Another," a cute call and response between Jack, Meg and (perhaps?) Jack's new lover that playfully messes with the brother/sister/hubby/wifey media-fueled confusion over the true nature of the duo's personal relationship (Meg: "I love Jack White like a little brother").
What makes the White Stripes so much fun, it seems, is Jack and Meg's ability to remain enigmatic even when they're doing their best to be completely honest.
Publication date: 05/01/03