Tues-Wed, August 9-10
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"I saw this documentary about a classical guitarist," Jack White told me recently. "He was playing Bach and Mozart, these really ridiculously complicated pieces, but he said, 'I really wish I could come up with music on my own. I don't know how to do it, I can only play what I read; I can't jam with another musician, or write or anything like that. ' It seemed like the saddest thing in the world to me--he sounded so great, but only if someone had written the notes out for him."
This little story throws some light on the White Stripes' fifth and latest album, Get Behind Me Satan, a record that thrives with a spirit that's the complete opposite of the malaise White describes--a rough, rowdy, ready fury that incinerates the more craftsman-like Elephant that preceded it. And then there's the spook, the eerie and unhinged atmosphere that clouds the marimba-led rattle of "The Nurse" (the song that's torn apart by blasts of dissonant noise as rampant and rancorous as a lovers' spat), that makes "Red Rain" such a rewardingly lacerating listen. There's a tangible sense of mania that pervades the album, magicked up out of clammy, slide-guitar-drenched air. There's nothing studied or posed here, nothing complicated, but you know no one other than Jack and Meg could've cooked up such a potently fractured, electrifyingly weird record.
These are the dominating themes of Get Behind Me Satan's music and ambience, but the lyrical focus is one which has endured through White's canon: Truth, and the ways in which it is betrayed every single day--the wicked webs deceit can weave in the bat of an eyelid. It's that sense of being betrayed--by musicians in his hometown whom he once considered friends trying to ruin the great thing he helped found--that sends White's vocals tearing into the higher registers, razor edged and blood flecked and not a little insane, that has him howling like a cornered animal.
But truth might be considered an odd obsession for a musician who, every single night, steps up onstage to perpetrate a very impressive but very blatant lie. Jack and Meg White are not brother and sister, but rather ex-husband and ex-wife, a truth their fans have known for years.
Touring Brazil with the band recently, I saw up close evidence of how the South Americans, who've never had the opportunity to catch the White Stripes live before, received the group. The audiences' reactions reflected those of White Stripes audiences I've been a part of across the globe, a faith in the Myth of the White Stripes that's so unquestioning it borders on the religious--an interesting kind of fandom for Jack White, who has recently fallen under the spell of the myths of the saints. The audiences see past the media's persnickety focus on whether the Whites' personae are the "real" thing, and plug into the "truth" that the Whites' rock 'n' roll pantomime communicates. The myths of the ancient bluesmen, the red-and-white-and-black aesthetic, the obvious fiction that they are a brother-sister pair of traveling minstrels--these themes they touch on in a larger sense, with their music and their concepts, are a part of the truths the band wish to communicate.
In Jack White, the group has the perfect rock 'n' roll rebel frontman, in revolt against a world that's swiftly vexing his old-fashioned sensibility. He seems permanently stung, by an era that's becoming ever-more crass, by the philistines who want to tug at the hidden strings that keep the White Stripes' phenomenon aloft, a disaffection that's won them a loyal fandom who perhaps share White's affection for a romanticized view of life, tinted like an antique photograph.
It's this idea of offering a world their fans can be a part of, something different from the mainstream, that's not a million miles away from the kind of cultdom David Bowie once promised. The White Stripes are rabid outsiders who still play from their hearts--damn the fools who might be grinning in their faces. In a rock 'n' roll world that's fast being swallowed by mild nobodies and painfully stage-managed controversies, they bring a phenomenon that's savage and of substance, a truth delivered with a red-and-white slash and set to a vicious, unforgiving slide guitar.