Album Review: The White Stripes – Greatest Hits

The White Stripes always seemed to be a band that stood apart. Yeah, they were part of the garage-rock revival movement of the early 2000s, but unlike the other act from that scene that critics hyped beyond all comprehension at the time, The Strokes, Jack and Meg White didn’t fall foul of the weight of expectation heaped upon them, and they did not immediately enjoy a huge commercial mega-hit breakthrough either.

I must admit, I did initially react negatively to the hype around The White Stripes, but as soon as I saw them perform “Hotel Yorba” on the television in early 2001, I knew I had to check them out, and after an initial listen to White Blood Cells, I was a fan. The sonic universe they were creating, was unique enough to appeal to me, and I enjoyed their bare bones approach as they brought something a bit different to blues rock, a musical style which had gone increasingly stale since its heyday of the late 60s and early 70s. Or at least new to me, as The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion had been doing this sort of thing for years before The White Stripes enjoyed their first press coverage.

Working backwards, I also picked up The White Stripes’ self-titled debut album, as well as De Stijl, and while neither of them grabbed me in the same way as White Blood Cells did, they still sounded like vital milestones in their ongoing musical journey. Even at this stage, with their oddly charming yet pretentious stylistic restrictions like Jack’s ridiculously retro catalogue-origin Airline guitar, their red, white and black wardrobe, their insistence that Meg and Jack were siblings when they were actually a formerly married couple, and the hilariously lopsided character dynamic between the two of them, with Jack the ultra-confident frontman guitar hero in sharp contrast to the shy and retiring Meg walloping the drums in a gloriously unorthodox manner behind him.

2003’s Elephant was the commercial breakthrough mega-seller, and the moment that a lot of music snobs turned their back on them. The monster riff of “Seven Nation Army” ensured that the single was a big hit, and gained the sort of blanket radio play that the cool kids turn their nose up at. The album itself was a well-considered follow up to White Blood Cells, being both a little more sophisticated and with a commercial edge, but still with a vintage analog vibe about it. Elephant was an enormous hit for the band, and it’s probably still the album that most people associate with The White Stripes.

Perhaps the success of Elephant freaked out Jack White a little, because it was followed up by the difficult to love Get Behind Me Satan, which outside of the distorted “Blue Orchid” pretty much did away with the commercial edge that had made Elephant such a huge success. It was almost as if Jack White just decided to be contrary for the sake of being contrary. Even now, it’s my least favourite The White Stripes album by some distance, and the one that I have listened to the least down the years.

While promoting Elephant, Jack White had repeatedly stated that he felt The White Stripes had one more album in them, so there was a bit of a collective groan of disappointment once most fans had realised that Get Behind Me Satan was just a blend of pessimism, marimbas and self-pitying whining, and possessed precious little of the dynamic energy that had made the band such an enjoyable listen up to that point. Perhaps not wanting the band to sign off on such a downer, Jack downed tools from his new side-project The Raconteurs long enough for he and Meg to record one last The White Stripes album.

Outside of a clutch of singles that were good, but not quite on the same level as those The White Stripes released from 2001-2004, Icky Thump added little truly substantial to The White Stripes legacy outside of scoring their second chart topping album and ending their career on a better album than Get Behind Me Satan. Certainly a superior album than its predecessor, Icky Thump was a little bit piecemeal, which given how distracted Jack was getting with side projects, setting up his own recording studio, getting married to a supermodel, etc, that’s understandable.

The next few years were a whirlwind of new bands involving Jack White, as well as him striving for an increased level independence from the music industry, as he set up a recording studio bedecked with vintage recording equipment, as well as his own in-house record pressing plant. A hipster, even by musician standards, White was evangelical about old recording methods and avoiding modern technology, waxing lyrical about how the new way of doing things was utterly terrible and an anathema to him. Christ, he must be fun at parties.

Although it took them until 2012 to actually announce it, most fans of the band had realised that The White Stripes had called it a day long before then. Jack White established a solo career that I have never been able to generate enough interest in to check out, and Meg slipped quietly back into the type of hard-won obscurity she always seemed to crave. So why release a Greatest Hits set in 2020 then? The widespread use of music streaming playlists has long since rendered such compilations pretty much obsolete, though I suppose there’s still a bit of a market left by way of impulse purchases when you pass them when doing your weekly shop in the local supermarket. However, with the outbreak of COVID-19, lockdowns and more people getting their groceries delivered, such impulse purchases must be getting few and far between, so there’s only a minimal chance that Greatest Hits will register much in the way of sales. So what’s the point? Because Jack White is a contrary bugger, that’s why.

I must admit, I raised a smile when I first saw mention of this Greatest Hits set, partly because I could imagine Jack’s perverse thrill at putting out such an anachronistic release, but mainly because I had only just been listening to The White Stripes for the first time in years recently. After all these years, the first two albums are enjoyable stepping stones to bigger things, White Blood Cells and Elephant are the enduring gems and the last two are a contrary fit of pique, and an apology for the contrary fit of pique respectively. The main thing that leaps out at me though, is the fact that The White Stripes would have been considerably less interesting without Meg’s simplistic drumming. As much of a musical polymath as Jack continues to be, Meg and her drumming are what made The White Stripes special.

Listening to Greatest Hits is something of a nostalgia hit for me. Smartly sequenced non-chronologically, so the significant drop-off in form as their career progressed is minimised, there’s so much here that reminds me why I loved The White Stripes back in the day. “Fell in Love With a Girl”, “The Hardest Button to Button”, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”, “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl)” and (of course) “Seven Nation Army”, these are all rock songs that soundtracked my mid-20s. I partied, worked, decorated my home, fell in love and utterly failed to ask girls out to these songs – they’re a part of my musical DNA. Thing is, there’s the downsides of The White Stripes represented here too. I always considered “The Ball and the Biscuit” to be little more than a mid-tier Jack White number stretched to lengths far further than could be justified, and listening to it again all these years later, yeah, it’s still an okay blues rocker lengthened to the point where it just becomes a bit tedious.

Elsewhere you have “The Nurse”, which always sounded like a thinly veiled childish swipe at Jack’s ex-girlfriend Renée Zellweger. Also, from a personal point of view, there’s just too much from the band’s weaker albums. “Blue Orchid” and “My Doorbell” is all you need from Get Behind Me Satan. That the likes of “The Nurse” and “The Denial Twist” were included in favour of the brilliantly primal “Jimmy the Exploder” a highlight of their career that actually opened their debut album is just mind boggling.

All in all, Greatest Hits is a fair summation of The White Stripes career. There’s great stuff, there’s not so great stuff, and there’s just some stuff that sounds like Jack White just wanted to draw attention to how much of an unapologetic hipster he was. Mainly though, it’s a reminder of just how much Meg White brought to the band, and although her bandmate took the lions share of the spotlight, she was actually the much more compelling and interesting individual.

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