CD: The White Stripes, Get Behind Me Satan

Jack White took his latest album out of the oven before it was ready, says Alexis Petridis

One thing rock music doesn't seem to care for in 2005 is progression. The three biggest albums of the year will all be on the shelves by Monday. The one thing that binds them, apart from their serried release dates and the weight of public expectation, is the fact that all are by artists that stubbornly refuse to move on. Oasis won't leave the Beatles impersonations behind out of loyalty to their lumpen fan-base, who think that musical progression is for softies. Coldplay won't mess with their epic ballad formula due to eyes-on-the-prize avarice: don't rock the boat and U2's biggest-band-in-the-world crown could be yours. Only the White Stripes, however, won't budge from their austere approach to rock and roll as a point of aesthetic principle. "The methods we use, and the instrumentation, have always been purposely constrictive. It'd be ridiculous for us to change now and employ a five- piece orchestra," said Jack White last year, in a quote that made even his dreams of grandeur sound pinched and ascetic: a five-piece orchestra?

Instead of change, Get Behind Me Satan trumpets a raw, back-to-basics approach, an announcement that strikes a ominous note. The White Stripes declaring that their new album is a raw, back-to-basics record is a bit like Abi Titmuss declaring that she's going to take her bra off. It's hard to react with much more than a shrug: you do it all the time anyway, what are you making such a fuss about?

It turns out to be a question of time. Their last album, 2003's Elephant, which saw the duo hone their guitar-drums-vocals sound to world-beating success, was released one year after its recording sessions ended. Get Behind Me Satan was cut in a fortnight, with no songs completed before the duo entered the studio. The first single, Blue Orchid, was available on iTunes within two weeks of the band vacating the recording studio. There's something bracing about their willingness to fly in the face of conventional 21st-century record company wisdom, in which nothing gets released without months of focus groups and strategic marketing plans, and occasionally the results imply that the old line about necessity being the mother of invention still rings true.

White frequently suggests he can now turn out great songs at the drop of his rakish, wide-brimmed gaucho-style hat. Blue Orchid boasts a heart-racing combination of hulking riff and falsetto vocals, My Doorbell is a wondrous, hook-laden pop song, Little Ghost's Appalachian hoedown channels some of the carefree spirit of Van Lear Rose, the fantastic album he wrote and produced for Loretta Lynn. More exciting still is the sense that the pressing deadline led to risk-taking. The Nurse's delicate marimba-led melody and love-gone-wrong lyrics are rudely interrupted by off-beat squalls of pounding drums and guitar, the musical equivalent of someone kicking lumps out of the sofa in anguished frustration. Red Rain unexpectedly surges from a toy piano and guitar introduction into full-on hysteria, topped off with a weird juddering effect on White's voice: he sounds like he's trying to sing while driving a car over a cattle grid.

Elsewhere, however, the material sounds frustratingly underdone - seeds of good ideas that might have flourished into something remarkable with more time and TLC. Forever For Her and Instinct Blues are, respectively, a great middle-eight and a great riff, both in search of a decent song, while As Ugly As I Seem sounds worryingly like it's being made up on the hoof. A period of reflection might also have stopped the lyrics striking such a monotonous note. While it's undoubtedly rotten luck to get dumped by Renée Zellweger (especially for a George Bush-approved country-and-western singer whose big hit was called She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy) the frailty-thy-name-is-woman schtick quickly palls. In fact, even Get Behind Me Satan's best songs come infused with unappealing self-pity. Blue Orchid literally compares White, a big chap with an assault and battery conviction, to a delicate flower. The otherwise splendid Take Take Take has a lyric just about witty enough to distract attention from the fact that its author has fallen back on the topic all wealthy, successful rock stars fall back on when inspiration runs low: how awful it is being a wealthy and successful rock star.

Succeeding by the skin of its teeth, Get Behind Me Satan should make White more wealthy and successful still. You can cheer the bloody-mindedness that fuels it - unlike the other big releases of 2005, it's certainly not a record that's desperate to please its audience - but that doesn't stop it being an experiment in regression rather than progression. Any more reductive and scrappy than this and The White Stripes will be into the realms of self-parody. As inward-looking exercises in deconstruction go, it passes muster, but you can't help hoping Jack White turns his gaze forward, soon.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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