Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make great. And The White Stripes once were a truly great band, often mentioned in the same breath as the Strokes but completely undeserving of such treatment. The first four albums were of unparalleled excellence, each a different limb and expression of the garage rock philosophy; over-distorted and stroppy (self-titled debut), bluesy and miserable (De Stijl), noisy and earnest (White Blood Cells), and dark and lingering (Elephant). Then we had drifting with only occasional flashes of brilliance (Get Behind Me Satan) and straight-up moribund nonsense (Icky Thump). Then, on the brink of a tour, they suddenly pulled out of all their dates, and we fans were left bewildered and bored as Jack White spent the next few years playing awful classic rock in the Raconteurs and the indescribably dull, miserable Dead Weather. As the White Stripes fainted off into darkness and obscurity, we were left wondering what we’d missed with that fateful tour that never happened.
Under Great White Northern Lights shows us that the answer is ‘not much’. It was recorded during their Canadian tour in 2007 promoting Icky Thump, and is also a film released under the same name. The album carries with it none of the aesthetic delights of the White Stripes in person; no bold strands of red and white, no elaborate stage, no glances of mischievous energy between Jack and Meg. We’re left with a minimalist document to put the money to Jack’s own self-imposed, endlessly repeated ‘just the music, bare and simple’ philosophy, and, for the first time ever, it’s hugely disappointing.
The best songs are facsimilies of the versions given on their previous live DVD, Under Blackpool Lights. It opens with renditions of “Let’s Shake Hands” and “Black Math” which sound like they were recorded in that time, all the tumbling eccentricity and energy of alienation still present. But then we start “Little Ghost”, easily the worst song from Get Behind Me Satan, a mandolin-laden Appalachian-folk song about falling in love with a ghost, but not in any sort of profound, longing-for-the-past sense, but just a straight-up, spooky-ooh-in’t-this-a-bit-strange sense. It’s the kind of horrible, teeth-bearingly sunny folk song that you see performed by third-rate Christians folk bands and you’re left longing for that moment, either 90 seconds ago or five years ago, when you were listening to Black Math. The best they have to offer us is the past.
The album then tries to get into a hard, garage groove. The spontaneity of White Stripes shows, with their lack of set lists, is lost and indiscernible as it is blatantly obvious that all these songs have been recorded at various concerts. Some old, unusual classics are wheeled out, like “The Union Forever” and “Jolene” . But these are just reminders of better times in the distant past, when they were formidable. These songs when put on this album are just like cruel postcards from an ex-lover. Or, more accurately, finding a picture of you and this lover, in Paris, bathing in beauty, and then finding out that that lover is now a heroin-addicted North Korean prison guard, in the grimmest of all possible worlds, and the beauty of the memory serves only to mock you and itself. So, the album can’t win. We’re then given a quick tour through the new stuff, including that horrible, musical mess and lyrical meander through fields of sheer meaninglessness, Icky Thump, and the repetitive soul-dirge of “I’m Slowly Turning into You”, which does mercilessly brief moments of brilliance, which fade away heartbreakingly quickly. Then there’s a version of “Fell in Love with a Girl” which sounds like a cover of the insipid Joss Stone version from a few years back.
I’m writing this from Scotland, and bagpipes introduce and conclude this record. There is also the cod-scotch folk song “Prickly Thorn (But Sweetly Worn)” on the album. I think these two things are about as good an example as you can get as to what is currently wrong with the White Stripes. After years of sparse minimalism, the White Stripes realised their self-imposed limits could only take them so far. And, as the rot set in and creative enterprise became increasingly hard, they turn to gimmicks, relying on the eccentricity which once merely bolstered their appeal, and turning this oddness into their defining feature. The songs spill out all over the album, floppy and confused, into the void, uncertain where they are going, and what they will do there, or why they’re going there at all. When once they thrashed about with angst and the beautiful, timeless vitality of being young and feeling alone (the basis for all garage rock), they now thrash against the bars of the cage they built for themselves.
© James Hampson, Music Vice