The White Stripes found strength in simplicity like very few before them, and even fewer after, although it can hardly be denied that their duo formula was a catalyst for the success, if not the formation, of a myriad bands in the last decade or so. The insane dynamo that is Jack White broke through with this band and has never ceased to gain momentum ever since, be it with The Ranconteurs, The Dead Weather and even with his two-band solo effort (yeah, that makes sense in his head), issuing the amazing Blunderbuss album, last year. Today, however, I’m going to write about The White Stripes’ last album together, called “Icky Thump” – it’s one of their best records, although I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “THE best”, and I feel it’s probably the most relevant, when writing about the band two years after their official breakup which had been coming for a good five years at that point.
There’s a jaw-dropping documentary called “It Might Get Loud”, where Jack White does a few parlor tricks with a piece of wood, an electric pick-up and a guitar string, and where he spills the beans on some of the workings of his internal creative laboratory. These bits of information shed a lot of light on The White Stripes and their trademark aesthetic. I’m sure you’re all familiar with at least some of their songs, most likely “Seven Nation Army”, or something else from “Elephant” – their mainstream boom album. That record, along with the ones which came before it, established The White Stripes as one of the most inspired bands of the times, drawing tremendous amounts of juice from old time blues records and shaping it into some truly stark and powerful songs.
In “It Might Get Loud”, Jack Explains that he found the ability to make that happen when discovering Meg White’s extremely simple, raw drumming. The decision to try to build songs on that backbone led to The White Stripes’ “de stijl” aesthetic – simple, straight lines, unsophisticated, primal stretches of sound, always aspiring towards perfect proportions – eminently uncluttered but imminently dangerous, impossible to pass by.
A few years later, by the time “Icky Thump” came out, this aesthetic was groaning at the joints – Jack White was squeezing the living daylights out of it, pushing harder and further with each song, cramming so much energy into the riffs that they could hardly contain it. Seriously, it’s a question of volume, listen to them, they’re bursting at the seams – his skills as a musician had developed to a point where he was having trouble containing all of the things he wanted and could to within the rigid framework Meg was providing. But “Icky Thump” was still The White Stripes all the way, it was by far the most dense of their records, and I think it’s great that it turned out to be the last, because it’s as far as they could take it without changing completely. I’m reminded of Piet Mondrian’s evolution as a painter and I’ll illustrate it right here – from “De Stijl”
There really isn’t very much I’ve got left to say about “Icky Thump”. The lyrics are full of that special humor Jack White knows how to sneak into his mostly serious musings – this is especially evident on the title track. The sound of the record is a bit more meaty than ever before – many times The White Stripes were accused of having a flat sound, devoid of sufficient bass, but this record can easily shrug off this accusation. It’s thick, aggressive, growling and pounding its way through the songs with unsurpassed intensity. Jack had begun branching out from his Dust-bowl era blues muse and had incorporated more folk sounding instruments and compositions on this album, which became a more visible trend for him later on, on his various other projects. If there’s one word which comes to mind to sum up “Icky Thump”, it’s “wealthy”. I highly recommend it as the perfect manifestation of a pivotal point in a remarkable artist’s career. Also, it has my favorite White Stripes song on it – “300 M.P.H. Outpour Blues” – to this day unsurpassed Jack White guitar and songwriting badassery. Enjoy!