The White Stripes – De Stijl

De Stijl (2000)

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1. You’re Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl) 2. Hello Operator 3. Little Bird 4. Apple Blossom 5. I’m Bound To Pack It Up 6. Death Letter 7. Sister, Do You Know My Name 8. Truth Doesn’t Make A Noise 9. A Boy’s Best Friend 10. Let’s Build A Home 11. Jumble, Jumble 12. Why Can’t You Be Nicer To Me? 13. Your Southern Can Is Mine

 

Jack discovers the slide guitar, and I discover yet another large hole in the crotch of my jeans. Any idea why this keeps happening to every pair of pants I own? Anyone else have a problem with this? I mean, I don’t feel like I stretch out the crotches of my various pairs of pants any more than the average person does. Is it just poor manufacturing? Do I just have to stop spreading my legs (that’s what she said! BAM!)? What the hell!

OK, let’s get back on topic. Geez. The White Stripes, part out of the necessity bred from their obvious limitations, part out of mischievousness, always seemed like they were putting us on somehow. They never gave us straight answers and relied on tricks, illusions and subversion, musically and otherwise. From the moment I first heard the Stripes, I wondered why a guy as obviously talented as Jack White would choose to limit himself so severely when, if surrounded by the right people, he could probably create the next Led Zeppelin or something. The White Stripes seemed to be one big wink and a nudge, like Jack was saying “heh heh, I can just fuck around with this little girl on drums and write rudimentary songs about candy canes and kindergarten and you people will still eat it up!”

Which brings me to De Stijl (which is pronounced “de style,” by the way. I’ve heard both “de still” and “de steejee,” but according to linguistic experts, aka the internet, “de style” is correct). I guess it’s always appealed to me more than any other White Stripes album besides their obvious creative peak, Elephant, because it feels the most real. It actually sounds like these two people, Jack and Meg, playing music in a room (their living room, to be exact), rather than two whimsical, fictional characters, Jack and Meg, emitting sound waves from the mythical peppermint forest. Now, I don’t begrudge them for creating that image, because it got them where they are and gave people a reason to care about their derivative blues-rock. But the grit of De Stijl is just a lot more appealing to me personally. This record is the closest Jack has ever gotten to worthily emulating the sound and spirit of his delta blues heroes. “Little Bird,” for instance, is an orgy of tasty Zeppelinized delta slide riffs on which Jack’s playing wows with technical prowess while still maintaining that excitable amateurism the Stripes were known for. He’d just learned how to play slide, after all – on the first album, he’d ceded all the slide parts to his friend Johnny Walker of the Soledad Brothers. That’s a fact that makes the rendition of Son House’s signature tune, “Death Letter,” so impressive. It’s an absolutely furious take, and certainly contains more adult subject matter than is typical for the Stripes. But hey, every band’s gotta have their “Songs for Dead Blondes” moment, right?

I was going to go on to describe the rest of the album’s perspective as “more adult in general,” but then I realized that would be completely inaccurate because most of these songs are in fact sung from the perspective of child and teenage characters. But with all the bluesy guitars and melancholic mood, the album just feels a lot more mature than any other White Stripes product. I can’t think of any songs in the band’s catalog that even attempt the same kind of longing, folk-based beauty that “I’m Bound To Pack It Up” achieves. It’s even got a violin on it! What’s a more grown up instrument than a violin? A clarinet? A hammer dulcimer? Yeah, TRY AGAIN. And though the energetic, childlike garage rock duo we got to know on the debut reappear at times—the near power pop of “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl),” the frenetic punk of “Let’s Build A Home,” the simplistic sub-Stooges thumping of “Jumble, Jumble”—the core of the record lies in the trio of slow, forlorn tunes about teenage loneliness in the middle of the album. Start off with some more bluesy slide tastiness on “Sister, Do You Know My Name,” which gets bonus points for its awesome, Stones-esque title. Then take a spin through the scornful “Truth Doesn’t Make A Noise,” and hear Jack sing: “The way you treat her/It fills me with rage and I want to tear apart the place.” Pretty dark, at least by the Stripes’ wide-eyed standards, no? Then bottom out with “A Boy’s Best Friend,” which is slow as molasses but emotionally encapsulates the loneliness and angst we all feel in high school sometimes. Jack does throw up an impediment to my ability to completely relate to it, as he sings about finding comfort in his dogs. And we all know dogs are stupid. So just pretend he’s singing, “A boy’s best friend… is his right hand.” That seems rather more accurate to me. In any case, I find this three-song sequence one of the most intriguing portions of the Stripes’ catalog.

Look, it’s impossible to overlook how limited the Stripes were in what they could do, here or at any other point in their career – for evidence, look no further than Meg’s “drum solo” on “Hello Operator,” which I’ll admit is “brilliant in its astounding simplicity” if someone can prove that Rick Perry’s higher brain function is “brilliant in its astounding simplicity.” But on De Stijl, they succeed in evoking a certain emotional state that was never really on their radar again. This is the Stripes album where all the put ons are stripped away, and we’re left with nothing but Jack howling at the ghosts of the delta blues. Just don’t expect Meg to keep up.



One Comment

  1. Emily wrote:

    I’m so bored of the incessant ragging on Meg. She’s not a great drummer. She’s not supposed to be. It works for the band (beautifully, I might add) so let’s move on. [For a less-fangirlish but more accurate take on this, you really oughta see “It Came from Detroit” sometime. In summary, Jack is a control freak, Meg doesn’t give a fuck = awesome musical output.

    Anyway, I like your point about this being a more mature sounding album – musically, at least, if not lyrically. This wasn’t one of my favorite Stripes records right off the bat and I was confused to see it very commonly proclaimed as die-hard fans’ favorite record. But then I hit high school and suddenly I felt like “A Boys Best Friend” was the story of my life.

    In other news, did you know that “Truth Doesn’t Make a Noise” is about Carrie? Like Stephen King’s Carrie? True story.


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