Detroit based married couple Jack and Meg White started playing music as a duo in 1997. Jack White played bluesy guitar, while Meg White’s primitive, untrained drumming was distinctive and refreshing. From the beginning of their career The White Stripes cultivated a mystique – they claimed to be brother and sister, while they crafted a visual image based around red, white, and black, and the number three.
Their 1999 debut album featured covers of blues standards ‘Stop Breaking Down’ and ‘St. James Infirmary Blues’. The couple divorced in 2000, but continued together as a band. 2001’s ‘Fell In Love With A Girl’ was a commercial breakthrough, and the duo became part of a garage-rock revival alongside with The Strokes, The Vines, and The Hives.
Expectations were high for the duo’s fourth album in 2003, and The White Stripes delivered with the huge sounding and commercially successful Elephant. The garage-rock of White Blood Cells is largely absent, and instead the record focuses on blues rock and classic rock. Jack White unleashes his guitar on songs like the blues workout ‘Ball and Biscuit’.
Most of Elephant was recorded quickly in ten days, using ancient equipment like an eight track tape machine and pre-1960 gear. The liner notes proudly stated that “No computers were used during the writing, recording, mixing, or mastering of this record,”
Why Elephant is The White Stripes’ Best Album
Some acts have careers that are smooth trajectories, building up to a high point, then coming back down. The White Stripes fit this category, and Elephant, their fourth album, captures them at the peak of their powers and their confidence.
Given the group’s limited personnel, Elephant is an impressively diverse disc, with surprising moments like a cover of Burt Bacharach’s ‘I Just Don’t Know What To With Myself’ and the acoustic closer, the myth perpetuating ‘It’s True That We Love One Another’.
The White Stripes have other fine albums – I have a lot of time for 2000’s De Stijl – but Elephant is where it all came together. The White Stripes hit their commercial and artistic apex simultaneously. The record’s sequel, 2005’s Get Behind Me Satan felt like a retreat from the limelight, a low key sound with songs based around the piano.
Seven Nation Army
The album’s first single, and The White Stripes’ signature song, appears to break one of the band’s unwritten rules – no bass guitar. But the bass-line is actually played by Jack on a semi-acoustic guitar through an octave lowering effects pedal. The “bass-line” is the song’s dominant feature. Strangely, Jack White had to push for the song to be released as the lead single – the band’s record label were in favour of ‘There’s No Home For You Here’.
Ball and Biscuit
Longer than seven minutes, ‘Ball and Biscuit’ is the longest studio song that The White Stripes ever released. It’s a straightforward 12-bar blues, with Jack White enlivening the simple structure with lyrics laced with braggadocio and live-wire guitar soloing. It was never released as a single, but ‘Ball and Biscuit’ is still a fan favourite, easily winning a Rolling Stone reader’s poll of Jack White’s best songs.
Well It’s True That We Love One Another
Even though the media proved that Meg and Jack White married in 1996, they continued to perpetuate the mythology that they were siblings. This charming but unusual closer includes English singer Holly Golightly for a three-way conversation, over acoustic guitar. Golightly delivers the line “I love Jack White like a little brother”, playing with the group’s back-story.
Do the Experts Agree?
The White Stripes’ career was on the ascent when they released Elephant, and it was rapturously greeted by critics. David Fricke, writing for Rolling Stone, shrewdly labelled it “a work of pulverizing perfection.”
On the website Rate Your Music, Elephant is ranked as The White Stripes’ best album, and the #603 best album of all time, with an average rating of 3.74/5.
On the website Acclaimed Music, Elephant is ranked as The White Stripes’ best album, the best album of 2003, and the #78 best album of all time.
Elephant is included in the original edition of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, along with White Blood Cells and Get Behind Me Satan.