My Vinyl of the Month
The White Stripes – Elephant
Elephant by The White Stripes is an album found on the shelves of all serious record collectors. If you don’t already have a copy, you should! And here’s why…
It’s the fourth studio album (of 7) from this Detroit-hailing two piece band. Released in April 2003, it received wide critical acclaim, commercial success, and multiple awards in that year. Despite this success, the album is often cited to be underrated at its time of release. Many critics and review sites have increased their scores over the years. Elephant now frequently appears on top 100 albums of the decade lists, and is no. 390 on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It is now an undisputed iconic staple.
Garage rock revival was all the rage in the early 2000s. The Strokes, The Libertines, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Hives were all in the throes of their success. But it was the blues-infused Detroit punk overtones that set The White Stripes apart. The pulverizing and primal beat of Meg’s drums keeping time for Jack’s unrelenting guitar plays to your chest, not to your head.
Elephant sees the band augment and refine their style beyond the simple guitar, drums and vocals of their previous releases. They have added a bass line, piled with both lead and rhythm guitar, and a keyboard. Jack White played all the additional instruments. The addition of extra instruments and dimension in no way detracts from the sheer rawness of the album.
Lyrically, the band has defined the theme of the album as the “death of the sweetheart/gentleman” in American culture. The idea that the youth of today have little respect for the ways and ideas of yore is something that both Meg and Jack find to be a great loss. This is definitely not something everyone can relate to, but their obsession with an old timey way of life (also vehemently stuck to in their recording process, see below) has definitely made for some of the best music of this modern age, so it can’t be all bad.
The album art has always been something of interest. Elephant has at least 6 slight variations on the cover released in different formats and countries (see examples below). There is also a lot of hidden meaning and symbolism in the details of the album. A skull sitting on the floor in the background, peanuts scattered in the foreground, Jack’s cricket bat, Meg’s tied up ankle, and the mark “III” on the circus travel trunk. The number 3 has a lot of meaning for the band, and is also Jack’s signature. On the reverse side of the U.S. edition, all of the number “3”s are in red. Both Jack and Meg also have small white ribbons tied to their fingers.
There has been much speculation about what it all means, and it’s always been hard to get a straight answer out of the band members about anything, but Jack did give some answers in an interview with Q Magazine in 2007.
“If you study the picture carefully, Meg and I are elephant ears in a head-on elephant. But it’s a side view of an elephant, too, with the tusks leading off either side.” He went on to say, “I wanted people to be staring at this album cover and then maybe two years later, having stared at it for the 500th time, to say, ‘Hey, it’s an elephant!'”
I barely understand the description, let alone see an elephant. But who am I to argue with the creative genius of Jack White!
Secrets and misdirection
The White Stripes are an incredibly interesting band. Even though they are notoriously private, they have always managed to cause a stir amongst reporters. Jack Gillis took Meg’s last name of White when they were married in 1996, and transformed into the Rock God we now know as Jack White. The couple were unbelievably secretive about their personal relationship, insisting that they were siblings, the youngest of ten children. It’s not hard to believe this lie, considering how similar they look (and dress). They are either genuine recluses, or marketing geniuses. All these rumors has certainly resulted in an air of mystery and intrigue around the band. Aside from all their diversion tactics, and smoke and mirrors rumors, when you cut to the core of this band, it’s the music that stands out and speaks for itself.
Back to Basics
What makes Elephant (and indeed the band itself), uniquely fascinating, is their approach to making music and recording. They have a simple lo-fidelity, back to basics aesthetic.
Jack produced this album with an 8-track tape machine, and their recording equipment all predated 1963. The liner notes proudly state that no computers were used in the writing, recording or producing of the album. It took them only roughly two weeks to record most of the songs in an antiquated studio in Hackney, London.
The band’s reverence for simplicity presents itself not only aurally, but visually too. All of seven of their albums, sets for shows, instruments and clothing are exclusively red, white and black. They believe this acts as a sort of uniform, enabling them to stay focused on their music. Jack is all about setting limits, physically and creatively, and keeping it simple. I found this great quote from him which I think everyone should remember:
“Even when you have the ability to do something, let yourself not do it,” Jack says. “Like I’ve made the rule in my life that I’m never going to learn how to play the harmonica. Even though I love the sound of the harmonica. It’s good, because it keeps me boxed in, it gives yourself character and meaning. It keeps you centered on what’s important, instead of being distracted.”
Do you remember what your music world of 15 years ago was like? For me, the early 2000’s were probably my most influential years.
At the age of 16, I was discovering some of my darker music tastes. I largely despised popular music of the 2000’s, and wouldn’t be caught dead listening to the likes of the Black Eyed Peas. I was too busy exploring the heavier sounds of the 90’s, like Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson and the Deftones. As far as music of the time goes, I was more into The Kills than The Killers.
But these days, I have to admit I’ve come to appreciate some of these precious gems, and when club hits from this era, like Missy Elliott’s Work It come on, I definitely drops it like it’s hottest! (side note: still not a fan of the BEPs).
There were many amazing albums that came out in 2003 and shaped my musical future. One in particular that set me in a new direction was Elephant.
As my first exposure to this incredible band, Elephant had me instantly hooked. Their unique combination of blues-saturated garage rock, fused with that gritty Detroit punk sound, drove an instant nail through my heart. It was also the perfect introduction to ignite my love for blues, which has colored many of my musical loves since.
My boyfriend at the time, who is now my husband (I know, cute right?), bought this CD and we listened to it in his car nonstop for months. Hearing it now instantly transports me back to those feelings of adolescent infatuation, and always brings a huge smile to my face.
If you don’t have a copy of this incredible album in your collection, you can pick up the vinyl record here.