How to write about the White Stripes without using an endless list of superlatives? Let’s keep it short: Jack is the most inventive guitarist of his generation, Meg is a drumming colossus and, live, this band are loud and beautiful, tender and crazy. Almost peerless. A decade since they got it together, they take some beating.
They set out their stall with the jagged blues riffs of their eponymous debut, in 1999, and the scuzzy garage rock of its follow-up, De Stijl. The stripped-down garage rock of White Blood Cells cemented their reputation but it was the rough melodies of Elephant that really made them famous.
In some ways, the Elephant became an albatross; not only was the album a widely acclaimed masterpiece that would be the zenith for most bands, but Mr White didn’t particularly appreciate being famous. So the Prince of Darkness returned with Get Behind Me Satan, another near-perfect collection of twisted love songs – this time led by crashing piano rather than guitars.
And so to their sixth album. It took three weeks to record in Jack’s adopted home town of Nashville – a good deal longer than previous outings. The title is a wilfully misspelled variation of the Yorkshire colloquialism, ecky thump. The cover photo shows Jack and Meg in pearly king and queen regalia. And the songs? In a few words, they rock.
This is a heavyweight album in every sense of the word. The blues-influenced garage rock remains but this time the ghost of Led Zeppelin really flexes its muscles. The opening title track is a wild epic with Seventies riffs, Mellotron solos and a lyric that goes: ‘Well, Americans want nothing better to do/ Why don’t you kick yourself out?/ You’re an immigrant, too.’
This being the White Stripes, there are surprises aplenty. ‘Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn’, a love song to Scotland, is all bagpipes and poetic lyrics; the Celtic theme and bagpipes spill over into ‘St Andrew (This Battle is in the Air)’, a short track spoken by a breathless Meg; ‘Rag and Bone’ alternates between Jack and Meg talking and the former hollering.
‘Conquest’ is perhaps strangest of all, though. A Corky Robbins tune popularised by Patti Page, it’s the sort of obscure, grandiose song that Marc Almond might cover, all mariachi horns and dramatic vocals. Great fun, and it works a treat.
If ‘I’m Slowly Turning Into You’ is a classic White Stripes love song in which the (ex) couple sing to one another in the chorus, then ‘A Martyr For My Love For You’ is one of their most beautiful. Against alternately shimmering and grinding guitars, Jack croons: ‘I could stay a while/ But sooner or later I’ll break your smile/ And we might share a kiss/ But I feel like I can’t go through with this.’ It will doubtless be sublime live.
If there’s a criticism to be made of Icky Thump, it’s the album’s bizarrely eclectic nature. But hell, it’s also what makes the Detroit two so endlessly interesting and different. Six albums in and they’re still refusing to make rock by numbers.
Download: ‘A Martyr For My Love For You’; ‘Conquest’