One can not help but feel a bit sorry for the White Stripes. They make 2 great albums (The White Stripes and De Stijl) and nobody notices. The make a third amazing album (White Blood Cells sells?), that people do take notice of and all of a sudden the pressure is on, observed closely by every beady eye of the indie-music press. Fortunately, by this time, they had an excellent PR engine running in the background that ensured the success of Elephant, despite being a very average entry into the White Stripes canon.
Enough has already been written about Get Behind me Satan, so let’s fast forward to now, and the impending media&markting circus that Icky Thump is gearing up to be.
The first thing that one notices about Icky Thump, in the context of the Stripes’ back catalogue is the songs, on average, are significantly longer (average song length on The White Stripes is 2:30 mins, De Stijl is 2.51 mins and Icky Thump is 3.39 mins). The reason for this is partly a much more developed song-writing style, but also a significant wedge of self-indulgence. Jack White may have started believing the sycophantic press about being the “saviour of rock-n-roll”, but that is no reason to launch into ill-advised guitar solos on every other track. In doing this, Jack White has once again removed the sense of urgency that makes the White Stripes so exciting. There is not a single moment on Icky Thump that even comes close to the impact of the childish energy on songs like ‘Stop Breaking Down’.
Nowhere does this self-indulgence feel more out of place than on ‘300mph Torrential Outpour Blues’ (clocking in at around 5 and a half minutes) which is one of the few tracks on the album that make use of the acoustic guitar and is a partly a confessional song on par with ‘Finding it harder to be a Gentleman Every Day’ and partly a candidate for the Air-Guitar-Solo World Championships soundtrack. Pity.
Another thing that strikes you when you have listened to the album a couple of times is how amazingly forgettable the songs are. Nothing really sticks. Whether this is because of the over-complicated structures or because many of lyrics are buried under a pile of power-chords, is open to debate. Case in point is ‘You Don’t Know what Love is (You just do as you’re told)’.
That is not so say that Icky Thump is a bad album, it is in fact a pretty decent rock album over all, and that would be OK if we thought The White Stripes were only a pretty decent band. Surely they are more than that.
As with all previous albums, there is an unexpected cover version plonked in the middle of the track listing. In this case it’s a Patty Page song called ‘Conquest’. It has been spiced up with some mariachi horns, and of course the obligatory heavy guitar riffs. Unusual, unexpected, but ultimately forgettable.
Perhaps what is most disappointing about listening to Icky Thump is that it never manages to sound as personal as the band once did. It sometimes feels like the act of observing the White Stripes has changed them. I do not think that Jack White could write ‘Same Boy You’ve Always Known’ or ‘When I Hear my Name’ today, even if he wanted to.
For all its flaws, Icky Thump also has some great moments, such as ‘Little Cream Soda’. Although it also has lost of guitar-noodling from Jack, it also has shades of the raw power and unpolished finish that the White Stripes do so well. It is followed by another highlight on the album; ‘Rag & Bone’. The song is punctuated by Jack and Meg seemingly going though a mansion fully of material riches making comments like “Wow, this place is like a mansion, look at all this stuff…You don’t want it?…I can use ‘em…we’ll make some money out of ‘em at least…just give it to us, we’ll give it a home”. This is then broken up by fast, messy guitars purposely reminiscent of their first album. It’s as if the band are turning a mirror on themselves and their new world, and it gives us a glimpse of what they once were.
All in all, Icky Thump is a respectable effort that sees the duo rocking out more heavily than they have done before. Jack White should also be commended for taking a bit more time with his songwriting than on some of the previous albums. However, there is absolutely nothing extraordinary here that warrants journalistic hyperbole like “rock-n-roll masterpiece”. Like the last couple of Stripes albums, it’s patchy. The good patches are very good, and the bad just make you cringe and reach for your copy of White Blood Cells for the 100th time.