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Music

'Icky Thump' turns 15: Revisiting The White Stripes' triumphant swansong

@TylerGolsen
The White Stripes - 'Icky Thump'
8.7

By 2007, The White Stripes were in full control of whatever future they wanted to explore. Over the course of seven years, the Detroit duo released five albums, including the UK number one LP Elephant in 2003 and the wildly eclectic Get Behind Me Satan in 2005. Very much at the forefront of the rock and roll universe, The White Stripes had built up a dedicated audience and proved that they would follow the band into just about any genre turn or stylistic flip that they would go through.

Having tested their audiences with the more audacious Get Behind Me Satan, The White Stripes chose to tone down the experimentation and plug back into their hard-driving blues-punk for their sixth LP, Icky Thump. No one, not even the band themselves, could have known it at the time, but the album would be the last that The White Stripes would ever make.

Much like Get Behind Me Satan, Icky Thump kicks off with a souped-up garage rocker that wasn’t quite representative of the diversity of the material that would follow on the rest of the album. For Satan, it was the high-octane riffing of ‘Blue Orchid’, but for Icky Thump, it was the stop-start title track that paired wild organ parts with thunderous rhythms and chunky power chords.

Although tracks like ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’ and ‘Little Cream Soda’ found the band returning to their fuzz-blues roots, Icky Thump has plenty of strange trips to be found within its tracklisting. ‘Conquest’ is a full embrace of the Mexican fetishisation that was teased on ‘Icky Thump’, with Jack White taking on the role of the noble matador. ‘Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn’ sounds caught between backwoods American folk music and classical Indian music, with drones rubbing elbows with mandolins.

The latter track segues immediately into the tape-modulated ‘St. Andrew (The Battle is in the Air)’, featuring a disconcerting lead vocal turn from Meg as a disembodied narrator pleading for angels over a nightmarish backing track. ‘Rag and Bone’ mixes spoken word into a bizarre narrative where Jack and Meg portray two pilferers, recalling the meta in-text self-references that were played for laughs on the Elephant closer ‘Well It’s True That We Love One Another’. Somehow, ‘Rag and Bone’ was chosen as the album’s second single, showing just how comfortable The White Stripes were about calling their own shots after a decade together.

Icky Thump largely dispenses with the multi-instrumental tendencies of Get Behind Me Satan: ‘Conquest’ contains some triumphant trumpet, while ‘Prickly Thorn’ and ‘St. Andrews’ are home to Scottish smallpipes. Jack gets to hop on keyboards, an instrument that he had become increasingly fascinated with, on tracks like ‘A Martyr for My Love for You’, but by and large, it’s mostly just Jack’s guitar and Meg’s drums.

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Tracks like ‘300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues’ and ‘Catch Hell Blues’ see the rootsy origins of the band being mixed with the electric excitement of garage rock, the latter of which sees Meg pound out some of the most incisive hits of signature stripped-back beats. When it all comes to an end on the acoustic punk of ‘Effect and Cause’, Icky Thump felt like part throwback and part look into the future.

Even though they were emblematic of America’s mixing bowl of genres and styles, Icky Thump includes a few nods to Britain, a country that had embraced The White Stripes from some of their earliest tours. The title phrase came from an old-school Northern English expression for surprise or exasperation, the likes of which dot British pop culture like The Goodies. Meanwhile, the album’s front cover features Jack and Meg dressed as pearlies, a subculture originating from working-class Londoners.

When combined, the styles and inspirations behind Icky Thump found The White Stripes perfecting their signature sound while constantly remaining diligent on how they could progress as a band. Especially over their final two LPs, The White Stripes proved that just about any genre could be adapted to their unique sound without losing any of its potency and appeal.

It was on the band’s supporting tour date in Southaven, Mississippi that Meg allegedly told Jack that the show would be the band’s last. It was only three months after the release of Icky Thump and there were still 18 gigs left on the tour, but the band elected to cancel the remaining dates, citing Meg’s struggles with anxiety. Jack continued to insist that The White Stripes were still together, even as he formed a new band called The Dead Weather, even claiming that the band’s seventh album was being recorded.

That turned out not to be the case. After a brief performance of ‘We’re Going to Be Friends’ on the final episode of Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 2009, The White Stripes were largely inactive until February of 2011, when Jack and Meg officially confirmed the end of the band. One of rock’s brightest lights for over a decade was officially kaput, leaving Icky Thump as their last will and testament.

Even though it doesn’t have the immediacy of White Blood Cells or the same dedication to diversity as Get Behind Me Satan, in a strange way, Icky Thump is the perfect conclusion to The White Stripes’ career. With its liberal blend of all the band’s styles that they had tried out up to that point, Icky Thump was a comprehensive summary of everything that made The White Stripes great. It’s not quite as well-loved compared to the rest of their discography, but Icky Thump wound up being the perfect album to send The White Stripes out on top.

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