When publicists for the White Stripes circulated a carefully drafted press release stating that the band's new record, Get Behind Me Satan, was written entirely on "piano, marimba and acoustic guitar," fans (and journalists) had to wonder, "Was this the same primal-blues duo we've grown to love? The same candy-cane characters who busted out jams like 'Seven Nation Army' and 'Fell in Love With a Girl'?"
Had the White Stripes gone — dare we say it — soft?
Not in the least.
Because when Get Behind Me Satan made its world premiere on Wednesday night at New York's splashy Splashlight Studios — before an assembled crowd of around 100 rock journos — one thing became clear: Satan is not only the hardest, sleaziest, gut-punching-est album the Stripes have ever made, it's also the prettiest, subtlest and most confounding thing they've ever done.
The lead track (and first single), "Blue Orchid," charges in with such a loud blast of amplified guitar, you'd swear this was the new Electric Six disc. Jack White's falsetto has never been higher, his guitar never more reminiscent of Led Zeppelin. And as the tune sped along to its conclusion, many in the room were left wondering what happened to those new, soft Stripes they'd been reading so much about.
If heads were scratched during the album's opening tune, then they were gashed wide open by track number two, "The Nurse." As chimes and that aforementioned marimba made their debuts, Jack assaulted it all with brutally distorted guitar stabs and then — in probably the album's most stunning moment — drummer Meg White, who is the album's unexpected MVP, absolutely kills her kit, pounding louder and harder than she ever has on disc, until the whole song bunches up into what can only be described as a God-honest noise-rock jam. As the marimbas and chimes make their way back in, it sounds as though "The Nurse" has just introduced the world's most destructive children's toy.
"My Doorbell" is next, marrying some beat-box drums and jumpy piano chords with Jack White's hound-dog whines. The tune builds to a bluesy, lilting piano/drum combo reminiscent of — no lie — the Black Crowes' "Hard to Handle." "Forever for Her (Is Over for Me)" rang out like a supercharged version of the Stripes' "You've Got Her in Your Pocket" (from 2003's Elephant), with pianos and drums thudding joyfully. And before you realize it, it's been almost 10 minutes since you've heard one of White's near-patented guitar solos.
Track five, "Little Ghost," does little to assuage those thoughts. It's a Deep-South hoedown that shows that Jack took careful notes when working with country legend Loretta Lynn. "The Denial Twist" is a short and sweet slab of classic Stripes, with Jack's frantic vocals and guitar (there it is!) balanced perfectly atop Meg's thudding drum work. "White Moon" is a slow, down-tempo tune, with little more than a plodding piano line and a rhythm egg accompanying Jack's laments.
After "Instinct Blues" starts off with some guitar noodling, Meg's drums come crashing in like anvils falling from the sky. Then Jack does an amazing imitation of Hendrix, pulling deep, ruddy blues notes out of his axe. "Passive Manipulation" gives Meg a chance to stretch out her pipes over a Holly Golightly-esque piano line (Jack soon reassumes vocal duties). "Take, Take, Take" melds jangling, twisty acoustic guitars with a piano line, sounding a whole lot like some of Zeppelin's mellower numbers.
The album abruptly closes with two boozy, bluesy tunes: "Red Rain" and the piano ballad "I'm Lonely (But I Ain't That Lonely Yet)," both of which smack of Lynn. On "Rain," Jack's slide guitar bleeds into Meg's smashing drums in a sloppy but pretty interplay. And on "Lonely," White pounds the keys like a drunken pianist in a whiskey joint in hell, bringing the record to a tears-in-yer-beer conclusion.
It was loud, it was quiet. It all seems like a bunch of contradictions, but on Get Behind Me Satan, one thing was without debate: the White Stripes haven't gotten soft.