How the White Stripes Got Back to Their Roots on ‘Icky Thump’
The White Stripes seemed to have wandered far afield of the nervy electric blues of their breakthrough album Elephant with 2005's gloomy Get Behind Me Satan. Then came Icky Thump, their last blast of garage-band glory.
This return-to-form LP arrived first in Germany on June 15, 2007, then around the world over the next few days. It couldn't have had less in common with Get Behind Me Satan, which sold about half as much as 2003's Elephant – a platinum smash that featured "Seven Nation Army." The experience seemed to have stung singer/guitarist Jack White, who developed a newfound appreciation for remaining true to one's roots.
“I told someone that one of these new songs could be an old 45 of ours,” White admitted in a 2007 talk with the New York Times. “And they said, would you want the Beatles to have ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ on the White Album? And I said, yeah, I would love that — what would be wrong with that?"
With Icky Thump, White's stinging guitar moved forward where pianos and light orchestral arrangements once were. Tough, blues-inflected songs replaced the quiet balladry that dominated Get Behind Me Satan.
Credit must also go to a year spent on the road with White's other band, the Raconteurs. The time away seemed to have sharpened his riffs to a razor's edge – even as it loosened him up. "Rag and Bone," a talking-blues in the style of John Lee Hooker, boldly recalled the White Stripes' fizzy initial successes, while "Little Cream Soda" grew out of an on-stage improvisation.
At the same time, however, Icky Thump didn't stand pat – something that's all the more notable when you consider that the end was so very near.
Watch the White Stripes Perform 'Icky Thump'
"You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do as You're Told)" howled with an open-hearted, country-soul rawness, while two tracks ("Prickly Thorn, but Sweetly Worn" and "St. Andrew") featured a bagpipe. The White Stripes converted a video treatment by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director Michel Gondry into a finished song ("I'm Slowly Turning Into You"), and even included a mariachi-driven cover of Patti Page's "Conquest."
"When it comes to the songs themselves, the songs are in charge – not me," White told Reuters in 2007. "Take a song like 'You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You're Told).' That was pretty much a country song in my mind. If I really was in control I could have just said, 'Hey, how dare you allow electric guitar and heavy organ on there,' but I don't do that. I let the song tell me what it wants."
Recorded over three weeks with drummer Meg White in Nashville, Icky Thump also arrived as they made a seemingly uncomfortable shift to a major label. Hints came in the selection of "Conquest," but also the subtext of this album's gnarled title track – their first-ever Top 40 single. Both seemed to point to lingering trust issues for the White Stripes, those heroes of garage-rock outsider-dom. "Icky Thump" is "about people using other people," White told MTV in 2007. "The theme is 'Who's using who?'"
As with many bands who came before them, it seemed the White Stripes' long-awaited success simply created more pressure. Icky Thump scored a career-best No. 2 Billboard finish but, like Get Behind Me Satan, that didn't match the million-LP sales of Elephant or 2001's White Blood Cells. An accompanying tour was cut short, with White citing Meg's growing anxiety about performing, and the White Stripes went into an extended hiatus.
They never recorded another album.