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Truth Hurts

 

The White Stripes: Get Behind Me Satan

V2, 2005

Rating: 3.4

 

Posted: June 7, 2005

By Laurence Station

The art of deception has been key to the White Stripes’ success. Jack and Meg White quite masterfully promoted the image of a Detroit-based, red and white peppermint-fashion-striped brother-sister duo, with the mute Meg bashing away on drums while flamboyant guitarist Jack belted out one electric blues-derived number after another. In reality, John Gillis and Megan White are an amicably divorced couple, with Gillis taking his wife’s maiden name for his own. And while the blues are certainly a foundation stone of the pair’s sound (as it is for just about every rock band that ever plugged into an amp), the presence of bluegrass, pop, folk and, now -- with the their latest, Get Behind Me Satan -- even a bit of disco-ized electro-funk, has fattened an impressively eclectic songbook. Just don’t take the White Stripes at face value.

Such chicanery hardly matters if the music is good. You don’t need to feel like an artist is pouring his heart out to appreciate his sound. Get Behind Me Satan, however, is obsessed with getting to the truth of matters. From its biblically allusive title to lyrical content that repeatedly strives to discover the reality of things, the White Stripes seem to desperately want to come clean. Perhaps this is the album where we get a glimpse of the actual people behind the carefully controlled public personas -- the unmasked Meg and Jack. But that’s not really the case. When the album’s done spinning, there’s still a thick smokescreen separating the listener from the artists. Jack White may reveal his obsession with actress Rita Hayworth (on two songs, no less) but it’s all in the name of truth-stumping artifice.

On “Take, Take, Take,” White assumes the role of a man in a seedy bar who encounters the famously red-haired Hayworth and increasingly ups the ante on his demands for a piece of the movie star, from a lipstick-trace kiss on a piece of paper to a lock of her flame-colored tresses. White is more engaging raconteur than unhealthily obsessed fan. On the other Hayworth-inspired tune, the ghostly piano lament “White Moon,” White undermines any personal investment in the song with painfully clunky (not to mention simplistically nonsensical) rhyme schemes: “A mirage, this garage / And a photo montage / And a finger massage from the host.” There’s no gravity to the words; they’re mere vapor. And while both songs are competently executed, neither rises to the level of the White Stripes’ best work.

Which is pretty much the case for the entire album. The best moments are the ones that sound the least affected. The whirling, digitized disco stomp “Blue Orchid” roars out of the gate with appealing energy, serving up revving guitar lines and a sturdily metronomic beat. It also includes the telling line “We all need to do something / To try and keep the truth from showing up.” “The Nurse” is a bizarrely paranoid detour (“The nurse should not be the one to put salt in your wounds”) that creepily marries a marimba and wavering percussive rhythm to a sinister examination of trust and treachery that (in true cliffhanger style) breaks off in mid-note, leaving the fate of its helpless patient hanging.

Get Behind Me Satan lacks the confidently muscular (if sonically overreaching) ambition of Elephant, the raw, bruising intensity of White Blood Cells and the appealing hooks of De Stijl. If it offered a deeper portrait of the White Stripes, then its distinction would be obvious. But all we get is a collection of solid-to-unremarkable songs about truth and longing, desire and betrayal, with hardly a real person to attach any of them to. The deception remains the same, but the quality of the material has slipped a few notches.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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