Well you're in your little room
and you're working on something good
but if it's really good
you're gonna need a bigger room
and when you're in the bigger room
you might not know what to do
you might have to think of
how you got started in your little room
The White Stripes, "Little Room" - White Blood Cells
Granted, the White Stripes owe a decade of candy-cane mystique to just such allegories seven nation armies and babies who cry like earthquakes and rats that eat the garbage of stardom but the elegantly constructed metaphor brings to mind a little, literal room. We've all been in a little room with the White Stripes whether it was in front of a stage or somewhere else where we realized we were in the presence of something remarkable.
So as not to seem like braggarts, the OGs in the Corridor cautiously guard their little room: some Gold Dollar gig back in 1999. The kids from Novi might brag to buddies down the hall about theirs: the Royal Oak Music Theatre a few years later when holyfuckingshit out of nowhere this huge American flag drops behind them and it's fucking amazing. Seriously. Fucking. Amazing. Others will guide a tour through their little White Stripes rooms the place in Mexicantown with animal heads and ashtrays, the night at the lanes when some shit went down, the dingy little barrooms with the dingy little names. That old song is about Jack and Meg discovering it about themselves.
With Icky Thump, the White Stripes are no longer in little rooms; the spaces are big as battlefields, cluttered with apocalyptic petitions to saints, feverish paranoia, and terrifying characters around every corner. The rooms of Icky Thump are filled with panic and chaos and it only takes a look to the record's cover to imagine that they're dressed for it: they've done away with the bold costumes of red and white, and sit on a log in an open space, dressed in black and white, at the funeral of the little room.
So throw everything and the kitchen sink into the opening track, which is set, tangibly enough, in the back of the wagon on the open road to Mexico. Our hero, dazed and drunk, is ready to save a red-headed damsel one moment and berate America the next, warning that "you can't be a pimp and a prostitute too."
A clever punch line one of the few on this record but, among the pheromone-scented metallurgy and utter confusion that dominates Icky Thump, it doesn't pack much of a wallop. It's lost in the omnivorous taste for thrashing 1970s rock everything from Bad Company b-side "You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do As Your Told)," to the trumpeting "Conquest," which a friend aptly described as "Iron Butterfly in a Mexican restaurant." Operating on this scale, the epiphanies seem as comic and valueless as the oversized check delivered to a sweepstakes winner. Is Jack White really snarling about immigration reform? Silly rabbit, even if you and Meg could pull off the prog riffs, the Dio affectation would better fit songs about slaying dragons.
Nowhere does the aggrandizing get more absurd than the bagpipe- (yes, bagpipe) driven two-fer of "Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn"/"St. Andrew (This Battle Is In The Air)." Somewhere between folkie Zeppelin and an Irish Spring commercial, the acoustic jig appreciates hills "pretty and rollin'." But out of nowhere all hell breaks loose. The bagpipes scream along with a guitar and an accelerating beat. The vocals sped up like a rabid chipmunk petition St. Andrew and search heavenward for angels.
So it follows that the most successful tunes here are the throwbacks to good ole de stijl: tunes that simply feel good. Of these "Bone Broke" is the record's hardest hitting and most sincerely delivered, and macho organ that backs up the duo on "A Martyr For My Love For You" helps make it their most satisfying love song in quite some time. That said, the only track with the simple chemistry of the humble beginnings is "Effect & Cause."
On "Little Cream Soda" Jack lays aside the thrashing for a second and recalls those beginnings: "There was a time when all I wanted was my ice cream colder and a little cream soda, oh well, oh well/a wooden box and an alley full of rocks was all I had to care about, oh well, oh well, oh well."
"Oh well," might as well be a casual goodbye. Oh well, so the simple "something good" that we fondly recall has become so typically bloated and unsightly with the excesses of fame: a marriage to a Prada model on canoe in the Amazon delta. A mansion away from the old neighborhood, and then a better one nowhere near Detroit at all. A record of half-hearted, hastily-borrowed dispatches from the tabloid stars that grooves as hard as any other millionaire divorcee in the neighborhood might.
So when we get to "Rag and Bone" the clattering half song/half skit where Jack and Meg dress up like scavenging grifters and gleefully ransack an immense, cluttered "a mansion or somethin'," at least they haven't lost their instinct for an accurate metaphor. Eyeing the worthless plunder Jack bawls: "Its just things that you don't want ... we'll make something out of them, make some money out of 'em, at least!" Meg's scurrying around greedily whispering, packing up rags and bones and junk like a voracious kid. And the White Stripes are in someone else's big, big room, filled with worthless junk. And it's suddenly hard to remember how they got started in that little room in the first place.
Nate Cavalieri writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]. To comment on the White Stripes’ latest, post your thoughts on the Music Blahg, under “Icky Sticky Thump.”