Be wary of an album that leads off with its best track. “Seven Nation Army,” a furious slide guitar-propelled rocker and an anthem for the best music on The White Stripes’ new Elephant, opens the new disc just as it opens a new window into the mind of John Gillis. Yes, before there was a Jack White, before Gillis ever heard the blues he’s paid homage to on three previous studio albums, he clearly listened to the same music that raised the rest of our generation: heavy metal.
Fans of the first, self-titled White Stripes album and its Zeppelin-esque sound know this intuitively, whether they wish to admit it or not. Now the Phil Rudd-like drumming and heavy guitar sounds that permeate Elephant give us empirical proof, calling to mind the best work of bands both as good as Sabbath (“Black Math”) and as bad as Cinderella (“I Want To Be The Boy”).
Even as White makes an entertaining show of reinventing the sort of hard rock that sounds good coming from the back seat of a Camaro, the album stumbles soon into the 14-song progression. When Meg takes over vocal duties on “In The Cold Cold Night,” you will skip to the next track. By the end of the disc, a few more un-listenable duds break the promise made by the first four songs. Even so, this is a good album, better and more adventurous than De Stijl, just not up to the excellence of White Blood Cells.
Besides the lead cut, “There’s No Home For You Here” is the standout, a song to make you remember that Queen rocked as hard as anyone during the disco era. With its quiet-loud contrast and the bubbling rage of both Jack’s voice and his distorted guitar, this is a great ranting breakup song, sure to callous the bitterest male heart. The clever hint as to the derivation of “Black Math” is accurate; more so, it sounds like an outtake from the Jack White-produced Von Bondies’ album, Lack of Communication. “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself,” a Burt Bachrach song and one of two ballads on the album, is more Robert Plant than “I Want to Be The Boy”‘s Tom Keifer.
The best songs all share guitar tones more Slash than “Sonic” Smith, showing the White Stripes will not be content just to ride their “Detroit sound” quickly into the sunset. To be sure, there are still two typical garage rockers here, “Hypnotize” and “Girl You Have No Faith In Medicine.” Both would be more at home on a Gold Dollar-era set list than this collection, but the Stripes’ studio forte is not (nor has it ever been) the rudimentary rock and roll of bands like MTV-darlings The Hives or Detroit’s Buzzards.
The wizardry of Jack and Meg, apart from their charming red and white shtick and brother-sister bullshit, is how they freshly and naïvely toy with musical genres. Before it was blues. On Elephant, their idiot-savant heavy metal approaches genius.
A shame that four worthless numbers weren’t just dropped and the remaining songs reordered—the band would have still had a respectable 36-minute album. Instead, the bloated 50-minute Elephant clocks in as their longest release. The bad songs range from boring and awful (the aforementioned Meg song) to campy and awful (“Well It’s True…” featuring Holly Golightly). The abominable “Little Acorns” wastes a full minute with the narration of a pathetic self-help story about a squirrel. I may be a bit harsh in wanting to excise “The Hardest Button to Button” instead of the clearly out-of-place acoustic “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket,” but at least the latter sounds like a Dave Davies number. “Button” is just annoying and repetitive. That these songs made it to the album is shocking, given the few throwaways on previous albums.
The Stripes make just a single concession to the blues on Elephant, “Ball and Biscuit,” a track that’s neither as inspired as their covers of “Lord Send Me An Angel” or “Death Letter.” This one, penned by Jack, is more of a Johnny Winter number, which is still better than the organ-driven “The Air Near My Fingers,” a song that proves once and for all that Meg drums as well as she sings.
Elephant lives up to its name—a big, sprawling album full of big guitar rock sounds, if a bit clumsy.