Far and away the most interesting thing about the “return-to-form” line of criticism that has dominated discussions of The White Stripes’ sixth album, Icky Thump, is that it almost entirely ignores what it is that gives the duo its claim as perhaps the greatest rock act of its generation. Establishing the basic framework on their self-titled debut and then perfecting it on their sophomore album, 2000’s De Stijl, The White Stripes have defined for themselves a unique, fully-rounded aesthetic that incorporates both their sound (Jack White’s inventive take on classic blues structures and his idiosyncratic lyrics, Meg White’s drumming like an enthusiastic sixth-grader) and their image (the self-mythologizing, or the tricolor ensembles that have become more embellished with each passing album, culminating in the current cover art, which finds them wearing elaborately sequined nudie suits and Meg boasting a Kentucky Derby hat). Only a handful of currently popular solo acts—Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Eminem, Björk, and Miranda Lambert among them—have a similar grasp on how to develop such a singular artistic persona, while even the most interesting and reliable established bands, with the notable exception of Radiohead, either struggle with maintaining any kind of continuity (as the confused reaction to Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky illustrates) or begin to repeat themselves to diminishing returns (such as The Flaming Lips). In that regard, The White Stripes are truly peerless.
What is most striking about The White Stripes’ aesthetic is its formalism, and each of their albums since De Stijl has found Jack and Meg pushing in novel directions, trying to discover exactly where they can go within their self-imposed parameters. Their experiments have been both relatively narrow (that fake-bass hook on Elephant‘s “Seven Nation Army”) and more ambitious (replacing most of the guitars with a slightly out-of-tune piano for the somewhat divisive Get Behind Me Satan), but they have all been successful. The White Stripes understand what they’re doing to the extent that, even without the Jimmy Page-inspired guitar riffs, a stomping, church-piano driven song like “My Doorbell” sounds like it couldn’t have been composed or performed by any other band. And that’s why the return-to-form line of thinking regarding Icky Thump doesn’t hold: “form” is truly the last thing that anyone could accuse The White Stripes of losing. Indeed, it’s their masterful control of a rigid aesthetic that makes each of their last four albums such striking examples of actual artistry.
Icky Thump, then, is every bit as in-form and formal an album as White Blood Cells or De Stijl. Perhaps the better description, though, is that Icky Thump sounds like a more predictable follow-up to the commercial breakthrough of Elephant than did Get Behind Me Satan, which is what people actually mean when they make those spurious return-to-form claims. And while that pesky piano has been rolled into a corner somewhere to give Jack ample room to show off his guitar chops, the album is every bit as challenging to the band’s fundamental tenets as were its predecessors. Some of these variations are minor—the use of tracks that gradually fade out rather than end properly—and draw detailed attention to how The White Stripes typically structure their songs. Other changes, however, are more striking. Two songs sequenced in the middle of the album, “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn” and “St. Andrew (This Battle Is In The Air),” find Jack’s roots-authenticity fetish traveling all the way to the Scottish highlands. The use of bagpipes might be a bit jarring at first, sure, but it shouldn’t be a surprise at this point that Jack makes them work with the band’s sound. The same can be said for the squelchy analog synthesizer on the incendiary title track and the trumpet trills on the cover of Patti Page’s “Conquest.”
So the album works, often brilliantly, in the specific terms of the band’s formalism. Where Icky Thump falls short, then, is in the consistency of its songwriting. There’s little fault in the opening three songs. The third stanza of “Icky Thump” finds Jack at his most explicitly political (“White Americans, what?/Nothing better to do?/Why don’t you kick yourself out/You’re an immigrant too”) in one of the year’s most outstanding couplets, while “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told)” plays one of his most scathing kiss-off lyrics over a standout pop melody. “300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues” takes its time in getting to the title’s payoff, but that payoff is undoubtedly Jack at his buzz-saw best.
Thereafter, the songs become increasingly verbose—Loretta Lynn’s economy of language, it seems, hasn’t stuck with Jack—without any of his trademark wit to keep the songs buoyant. “A Martyr For My Love For You,” for instance, is as literal-minded a song as he’s ever written. On two of the worst offenders, “Bone Broke” (wherein he notes, “I’m leaning on a brick with my nails/I’m telling ‘em the money’s in the mail/Keep showing that my bones never fake it/But still a brick bank is gonna break it down”), and the protracted complaint of “Little Cream Soda,” Jack repeatedly relies on the same defensive shrug: “Oh well.” More troubling, though, is the call-and-response with Meg on “Rag And Bone,” which comes off as a petulant reaction to fans and critics who they feel don’t get it. “Bring out your junk/And we’ll give it a home,” he calls out, remarking that, “We’ll make something out of ‘em/Make some money out of ‘em, at least.” The track is played as a joke, but it’s still as perilously close to breaking character as Jack and Meg have come.
It’s fortunate, then, that the album ends with the relative high points of “I’m Slowly Turning Into You” and especially the stripped-down “Cause And Effect,” which is the album’s purest iteration of the band’s signature style. That The White Stripes’ aesthetic alone is left to carry Icky Thump without the benefit of fully-formed songs for more than half of its running time makes the album their least satisfying since their debut. Still, it’s the strength of their aesthetic that holds them to a higher standard than most other artists: Though far from The White Stripes’ best work, Icky Thump is still plenty good, brash, and noisy in the way great rock records are supposed to be.