If not for the major-label deal, fervent fans, celebrity romances, and media attention, Jack and Meg White could pretty much still be operating from Jack's living room. Sure, The White Stripes now have bigger album budgets and play for higher stakes than they used to, but the core project remains unchanged: Take some favorite bits from the last hundred years of music, break them down into bite-sized pieces, reconstruct them as pop songs with a handcrafted touch, and make sure the obvious influences don't overwhelm the personal vision. The band's still driven by the sound of two people making a lot of noise without a lot of input, and it's easy to imagine its new album, Get Behind Me Satan, taking shape next to Jack's homemade Tesla coil.
After enlisting some outside help for 2003's Elephant, Jack returned to producing duties for Get Behind Me Satan. While Get Behind loses some of Elephant's pre-modern studio flash, there's no mistaking it for a retrenchment. It reprises Elephant's ambition, channeling it through some of the strangest turns of The White Stripes' career.
Maybe having nothing left to prove is what allows The White Stripes to let soothing marimbas do battle with percussive chaos on "The Nurse." Or maybe it's just the irresistible allure of the marimba. Whichever the case, it's a thrilling track, and its position after the propulsive album-opening first single "Blue Orchid" sends a clear message: Anything can happen. But it's a sense of unease, more than raw excitement, that creates that feeling. Where past White Stripes albums have largely dwelled on the preservation of innocence in a corrupt world, Satan takes innocence lost as its theme from the start. "You took a white orchid and turned it blue," Jack screeches on "Blue Orchid." It's the "Caroline No" of someone who grew up in a city that counts Ted Nugent as a local hero. "My Doorbell" finds Jack pining for a visit that sounds unlikely to come, expressing his loneliness between the beats of the funkiest rhythms Meg has ever committed to record.
Call it elemental, or just elementary; either way, she gets the job done. And here, Meg has to do a little more work than usual, since only a few tracks are built around Jack's guitar. One of two songs to mention a woman named Rita—the other, the unsatisfied starstruck fan letter "Take, Take, Take" recalls an uncomfortable encounter with Rita Hayworth—"White Moon" builds dark drama out of a repeated piano phrase and the drums that threaten to drown it out. But only a piano keeps Jack company on the dark-night-of-the-soul lament "I'm Lonely (But Ain't That Lonely Yet)." An inventory of things lost that builds toward a resolution to carry on without them, the song ends another remarkable White Stripes album by bringing it full circle. It's one thing to declaim a corrupt world with a shout and a snarl, another to learn to live within it.