The White Stripes – Get Behind Me Satan

Get Behind Me Satan (2005)

C+

1. Blue Orchid 2. The Nurse 3. My Doorbell 4. Forever For Her (Is Over For Me) 5. Little Ghost 6. The Denial Twist 7. White Moon 8. Instinct Blues 9. Passive Manipulation 10. Take, Take, Take 11. As Ugly As I Seem 12. Red Rain 13. I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)

 

Well, awesome album title. It’s got that going for it. I guess Jack decided Renee Zellweger Is A Bitch would’ve been too forthright. But for as much as he grumpily fumes on this album about some girl—who we can surely assume is the puffy-faced actress who, at the time of Satan’s recording, was his most recent ex-belle—it would’ve been damn apt. Has there ever been a relationship between actors that started on a Hollywood movie set that has actually worked out? Jack and Renee met while they were both starring in the enjoyable but ludicrously melodramatic 2004 film Cold Mountain, aka The Civil War If Everybody Was In A Calvin Klein Commercial. I mean, you look up from staring at your balls like four hours into that movie and you see Nicole Kidman in full makeup, her cheeks impeccably rosy, yelling across a mountain at a chiseled Jude Law and you’re like, “damn, the Civil War may have resulted in the deaths of millions of Americans, but it sure as hell didn’t kill our sexy!” No wonder at least a couple of people on that shoot wound up sexing each other. Hell, it was clear that everybody in the movie preferred to spend time doing that instead of working on improving their atrocious Southern accents.

The point is, Jack and Renee didn’t last, and as a result, Jack undertook the weighty task of following up Elephant in a bad frame of mind. Having reached an obvious pinnacle with their previous garage rock approach, the Stripes were now forced to go in a new direction or risk stagnation. So they chose a new path well trodden by so many before them: going acoustic. OK, OK, it would be lazy and inaccurate to peg Satan as the band’s “acoustic record.” But they’ve all but abandoned The Big Riff in favor a quieter, acoustic guitar and piano-based intimacy. Many artists have made their designated soul-baring classic (TM) by using that formula. But, on Satan, Jack doesn’t seem to have the clarity of vision—or the heart—to pull it off.

The album’s inadequacy lies in both its intentions and its delivery. Starting with the latter, one major issue is that there’s too much damn piano. Maybe Jack fancies himself the Eddie Van Halen of his generation, master of both guitar and keyboards, but until the day he comes up with his own “Jump,” the fact remains that despite being a transcendental guitarist, he’s a fairly uninteresting piano player. And, unfortunately, these songs are almost all piano. And when you’re left with just Jack futzing about with block chords and Meg being Meg, it’s inevitably going to feel like there’s something missing. Interestingly enough, the songs that do strip down to this most basic setup are among the best songwriting efforts on the album, like the cheery pop tune “My Doorbell,” which ranks among my favorite Stripes songs, and the spitfire iPod commercial fave “The Denial Twist.” But no matter what new instrumental elements are introduced to fill the void—some marimbas here, some bass there—none of it comes close the replacing the magic of Jack’s guitar. What little electric guitar presence there is gets squandered on the aimless, amelodic blooze of “Red Rain” and “Instinct Blues.”

What’s more, it certainly doesn’t help that the whole album sounds like it was recorded in a wet cardboard box – damp sound, little in the way of exciting dynamics. So although something like “Forever For Her (Is Over For Me)” features a strong, longing melody that wants very badly to soar triumphantly above the clouds when the chorus comes around, when as weighted down as it is by the waterlogged production, boring piano, and the high pitched, warbling, annoying voice that Jack has taken to singing with, it has trouble getting off the ground. The band plays around a lot with song structure and analog sound effects, throwing in weird little unexpected vocal overdubs or percussion or distortion, but mostly all this comes off less “experimental” than “incompetent.” “The Nurse,” for instance, is just a mess, sounding like several drum and guitar parts from completely unrelated songs awkwardly pasted over a low-key marimba-based groove. “Take, Take, Take,” appears to have similar origins, but, on that one, all the haphazard, funky elements somehow end up making sense together. Jack has trouble syncing up his double tracked vocals, the song seems to keep falling out of time with itself, and an alarm clock goes off for no reason, but—probably because the song has a stronger personality and hook than most of the other songs in the first place—all these anomalies give the song character rather than make it sound like shit.

Furthermore, Satan is the most alienating breakup album I’ve ever heard. Jack outwardly unleashes his disappointment about the dissolution of his relationship, making him sound cynical, angry and distrustful of everyone and everything other than himself. This is a perfectly human and common reaction to a breakup, of course, but Jack’s unrelentingly bitter tone makes me feel as though I’ve personally wronged him and that he disapproves of everything I’ve ever done. He attacks girls for putting salt in his wounds, rocking the boat, and failing to “get with it,” and just comes across as a dickhead being really pissed off and scornful at everybody in order to cover for his commitment issues (detailed in “Forever For Her”). Maybe it’s not my place to analyze Jack White’s love life, but that’s how it comes across to me. On the rare moments where he does step back and attempt gentility and introspection, it results in a number of laughably inept lyrical passages seemingly written by a 13-year old attempting to be abstractly Dylanesque (sample rhymes from “As Ugly As I Seem” and “White Moon”: “And it makes me want to scream/When it’s Halloween;” “White moon, white moon, breaks open the tomb/Of a deserted cartoon that I wrote”… what the fuck?!?). “As Ugly As I Seem” at least has some pretty acoustic picking on it, but the inept piano ballad “White Moon” is one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard in my life.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the album’s strongest moments outside of “My Doorbell” and “Take, Take, Take” are its least typical. “Blue Orchid” is the only big riff rocker on the album, so of course it was misleadingly released as the lead single. But it’s no “Seven Nation Army” retread – with its super-processed guitars and Jack’s squeaky falsetto, it interestingly comes closer to robotic funk rock than 70s arena riffage. “Little Ghost” does away with the rock altogether, instead taking the form of a giddy bluegrass nugget about a guy pining for an invisible specter. The closing solo piano showcase, “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet),” shares its old-timey feel and is by far the album’s most poignant moment. It’s the only time on the record that Jack shows any real vulnerability – and proves that keeping his audience on the other side of his prickly shell for the previous 40 minutes was no way to reach them.



3 Comments

  1. Emily wrote:

    I have never ever thought about this record being about Renee Zellweger. Ew. Ew ew ew. I’m going to pretend you didn’t draw that parallel and never ever think about it again.

    I agree that GBMS is the White Stripes weakest record, but I think this review is a little harsh. I agree that there’s too much piano, but I hardly think the guitar is “squandered” on Red Rain and Instinct Blues (which would ranks pretty high up on my list of Dangerous Jack White Songs, behind Ball and Biscuit and Top Yourself). I also think you’re right when you say it’s not your place to analyze Jack White’s love life, but mostly because I think the album probably sounds 19824938275 times shittier if you’re thinking about Renee Zelleweger the whole time. I prefer inserting myself into the character of each song’s place and looking at it that way. And as a 15 year old, lines like “just tug on my shirt and lay down next to me” coming out of Jack White’s mouth were pretty damn compelling. And this record has MANDOLIN on it! And how can you say White Moon is laughable? DO MEG’S TEARS MAKE YOU LAUGH?!

    Wow, I can’t believe I’m defending Get Behind Me Satan. Enough of that, I dare say.

  2. Joseph wrote:

    Wow. I have stumbled across this review online, and I know nothing about this website or you except that you are perhaps the wrongest person ever. I think that you are missing every point this album has. All the slightly out of time double tracks, the cymbal falling over in White Moon, songs straddling the in time/out of time line nervously – they make this album all the more compelling for me. Listen to old blues records, Son House and Robert Johnson and the like have no care for metronomes and what have you, seriously man who gives a shit? That’s what I feel when I listen to this – I feel like it’s so honest and raw that I’m listening to a Delta bluesman. And for Christ’s sake do your research, several of the songs are about Rita Hayworth, Jack considered her a focal point when writing Satan. I don’t know why it matters so much to you who the songs are about, I mean if they’re moving and interesting and compelling then they can be about Adolf Hitler for all I care. You are way too ANALytical for this band’s music, I mean I don’t know what insights you think you can possibly bring to this discussion when you describe Meg as a terrible drummer. You are completely missing the point, every point. I wonder why its worth my time trying to even speak reason to you, but I feel so strongly like this album and this band must be defended. In all honesty you come off sounding like an obsessed acca dacca fan – “Where’s the fucking guitar at? Piano? Piano is GAY!” These songs are beautiful. Come on dude, get a load of the disjointed guitars on the Nurse. They are not there just to be fucking out of place, they contribute so much to its vibe and mood. No, I don’t think every song on this album is a work of genius but I think the album as a whole is, and you are selling it incredibly short. White Moon makes me cry. You are a complete idiot for saying it is one of the worst songs you’ve ever heard. Don’t shit all over it just because you can’t comprehend lyrical abstractions. The song’s not about you, it’s not even for you. You don’t have to understand the lyrics, I don’t understand them, but I understand exactly how Jack feels when he sings them and that’s all that matters. I don’t think this band is for you. This album is my favourite, now I understand that other people may not like it as much as me, but to not like it at all (C+), I think either your opinions are hardly thought out at all or you’re unable to see the value in this album because you are the wrong kind of person for this band. I don’t usually engage in posts like this but upon reading your opinions I just had to dismiss them openly. You are so incredibly wrong.

    • Jeremy wrote:

      I give this comment a C. Blinding fanboyism mars the commenter’s honest efforts, and he resorts to way overused internet review comment traps like failed attempts at humorous personal attacks and charges like, “you analyze the music too much.” But it is saved from complete and total worthlessness – the commenter displays at least cursory knowledge of the White Stripes’ influences, and his passion is undeniable. You gotta respect that.


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