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De Stijl perfectly captured The White Stripes’ statement of purpose

Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.

Jack and Meg White took the stage at the 46th Grammy Awards in 2004 to play “Seven Nation Army,” the opener and first single off their then-most-recent album, Elephant. The tune was already the most ubiquitous and successful song of the band’s career with its inherently catchy, brooding, and simple hook. Playing it was a no-brainer, and finishing to deafening applause should have been enough to prove them deserving of their Best Alternative Album and Best Rock Song wins that night. But Jack White, ever the showman, wasn’t content with leaving it at that, and launched into the band’s shrieking cover of Son House’s “Death Letter Blues” midway through the performance. He shuddered across the stage during multiple, octave-shattering guitar solos as Meg drummed along to his lead with a stare most often ascribed to predatory big cats closing in on a kill. Stage lights occasionally blinded the television cameras as The White Stripes finished for a stunned audience, an appropriate visual representation of the duo’s explosive national arrival. Elephant marked their mainstream breakthrough with its Grammy-winning “Seven Nation Army,” but two albums earlier, De Stijl and its cover of “Death Letter” perfectly captured Jack and Meg’s statement of purpose.

Injecting a rare moment of genuine emotion into the Grammys wasn’t bad for an upholsterer’s apprentice and a bartender from Detroit. Jack White, né Gillis, grew up in the Motor City, the youngest in a bevy of Catholic siblings. Choosing technical school over seminary for fear he couldn’t bring along his guitar and amplifier, Jack bounced between garage rock revival bands during the early-to-mid-’90s before marrying Meg White, taking her name, and forming The White Stripes together. The pair released an enthusiastically messy self-titled debut in 1999 that included ramshackle recordings of Jack hooting like a monkey, Zeppelin pastiche riffs, and covers of Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson, and “St. James Infirmary Blues.” It’s a young album in every sense, with Jack barely sounding the 24-years-old he was at the time.

The couple divorced under still murky circumstances on March 24 of the next year, a nail in the coffin for most romantically involved musicians. But in a confounding bit of dedication, Jack and Meg kept at it, promoting the stage myth of a brother-sister act as they released their second full-length, De Stijl, not three months after their split. Taped on an 8-track recorder in Jack’s living room, De Stijl at once codified The White Stripes’ sonic and artistic modus operandi while also laying the groundwork for future experimentation.

De Stijl as an aesthetic movement began in 1917 in Amsterdam, combining cubism with neoplatonic mathematical theory to create hyperminimalist artwork and architecture. Jack White took the short-lived school of thought to heart, using it as an influence in his upholstering, and later, in The White Stripes themselves. The band’s tricolor palate was evident from the beginning—never would their clothing, instruments, and cover art deviate from red, black, and white. But the approach influenced more than just visual imagery, even with the second LP’s unsubtle cover art featuring Jack and Meg standing amidst a set-piece example of the philosophy.

“In my mind, both the country blues and the De Stijl movement represented a new beginning of music and art, perhaps for the rest of eternity. Both broke down their respective arts to its very core. You couldn’t get much more simple and pure than the De Stijl school,” Jack White explained in a 2012 interview with Guernica.

“Simple and pure” might seem an apt description of The White Stripes’ sophomore release upon initial listen, but it glosses over the LP’s underlying transgressive musical complexity. De Stijl is first and foremost a pop rock album, but like the parenthetical title of its introductory track, “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl),” there are a number of qualifiers to that statement. While their previous collection still stands on its own as a raucous blues-punk party, it occasionally veered too closely toward the work of its predecessors, namely Jimmy Page, Howlin’ Wolf, and Billy Childish. It would have been easy for The White Stripes to slowly devolve into a Blues Hammer-like atrocity with each successive LP, but the undeniable care taken by the duo to further their craft on De Stijl attests that, color schemes and faux-sibling origin stories aside, the pair was no gimmick.

From Jack’s opening siren notes on the album’s second track, “Hello Operator,” it’s clear that this band is already increasingly confident in its ability. Meg’s near-comically simplistic drumming provides the backbone support to her ex-husband’s muscular guitar work, a dynamic that would carry the band through four more albums. The White Stripes’ previous LP mainly employed Meg as enthusiastic timekeeper, but De Stijl saw her in this more pivotal role, with “Hello Operator” as case in point. The juxtaposition of her childish drumstick “solos” between verses may seem trivial, but it only accentuates the pair’s bombast while playing together. As the track fades out to arguably the most satisfying palm-muted guitar tone in musical history, the band declares that this is not one man’s vanity project, but a tug-of-war act between purposeful minimalism and innovation. Meg’s involvement would only increase as time went on, seeing her with more prominence on White Blood Cells, and even supplying lead vocals on Elephant’s “In The Cold, Cold Night.”

“There’s an overall structure of simplicity, and it revolves around Meg’s drumming style,” Jack told The A.V. Club in 2007, “And it can’t be beat… that’s the beauty of Meg.”

Some of The White Stripes’ strongest work lay not in ear-bleeders like “Hello Operator” or “Little Bird,” but in tracks such as “Apple Blossom,” a Kinks-by-way-of-Cabaret ballad that nods toward the thread of romanticism linking the band’s catalog. What began on this track could be seen in later songs like “I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart,” “My Doorbell,” and “As Ugly As I Seem.”

“Come and sit with me and talk a while / Let me see your pretty little smile / Put your troubles in a little pile / and I will sort them out for you,” Jack croons atop a saloon-style piano, a production flourish soon to be used on numerous future releases from the band. The cracks in whatever relationship remained between Meg and Jack became increasingly apparent as time wore on. Although their ardent, rightful privacy on the matter leaves much unsaid, the first clues into their life together perhaps can be found in De Stijl’s balladry.

De Stijl finishes with the pair covering Blind Willie McTell’s “Your Southern Can Is Mine,” a jangling country blues bit of snark that, on the surface, details an abusive and controlling beau warning his woman that “there ain’t no use in bringin’ no jive to me.” “Now, baby, ashes to ashes, sand to sand / When I hit you, mama, then you feel my hand,” Jack sings soon thereafter. While a surface reading of McTell’s lyrics are undoubtedly troublesome, like just about everything else to The White Stripes, there is always more to it than can be found in an initial analysis. Like so many blues records of the early 20th century, McTell arguably used women as a placeholder for white society, thereby taking out his aggression in a (then) more palatable way for audiences. This in itself doesn’t necessarily excuse the association, and may still point toward a genuine critique of The White Stripes’ fascination with some halcyon, emotionally resonant bygone era.

Still, Jack attempted with Meg what may have been the impossible during their career in The White Stripes—a retroactive understanding and appreciation for the past while using this process to move forward as human beings. “Truth doesn’t make a noise,” he declares on the album’s song of the same name, and he was simultaneously right and wrong. Truth as a concept is silent, but in music it can be loud, unabashed, and lovely.

By 2011, after 14 years and six albums, The White Stripes were finished. Like the De Stijl movement—coincidentally lasting just as long—the project couldn’t realistically sustain itself under its own self-imposed aesthetic and artistic restraints. Both Get Behind Me, Satan and Icky Thump, while solid latter releases, showed signs of creative strain and exhaustion. On top of this, stories abounded of Meg’s acute anxiety problems taking a toll on her health, even prompting the cancellation of over 20 tour dates in 2007.

“It’s strange to know that there’s beautiful moments that no one will ever know about,” Jack said in an interview with Esquire. “It’s whether I’m going to tell you, because Meg’s never going to tell you. There’s a sadness to that, a romance.”

For a band that dedicated so much time and attention to its public image, there was that much more hidden from our eyes and ears. This complex mix of brutal honesty, private emotion, and a commitment to an arguably unattainable sound or state of mind were all laid out on that second release. It was clear at the 46th Grammys that a seven nation army couldn’t hold The White Stripes back, as Jack sang of their progress just minutes earlier. But it was his unrequited love for dead eras both personal and historic on De Stijl that allowed the band to build its own lasting presence in American music.