Jack White's Ghost Sonata

This week we take on the White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan, which is both a shocking musical departure for the band and a stunningly confessional breakup album. Pardon our literalist interpretations — we’re just following Jack White’s lead!

KATE: Stripes. Talk to me.

JAAN: This record is dealing with a real situation — this is a breakup suite, and I think it’s as real as rap. This is a pissed-off guy; his woman left him.

K: Yeah, there’s a secret hip-hop feeling in the lyrical delivery — it’s word-spitting and internal rhyme all over the place. And how hip-hop is this: He rhymes “Rita” with “Reseda.”

J: He’s gonna be moving to Compton any day now!

K: Actually I Googled it and I think he says “Mesita,” but Reseda sounds cooler — it’s either hip-hop or Cole Porter! Anyway, you can hear that he really was the only white kid at an all-black high school — supposedly.

J: You can never tell — there’s so much mythology with this band. Now that he’s had a movie-star girlfriend, and he conjures up the specter of Rita Hayworth — is she the stand-in for Renée Zellweger? And the song “The Nurse” —

K: Right — Renée Zellweger starred in Nurse Betty — the girl who couldn’t tell the difference between TV and real life.

J: This is a roman à clef. In that song, the nurse poisons him — “The poison is delivered by trust.” Excuse me, but this is a breakup record. It’s a concept album about breaking up. It’s also the shifting finger of blame — there’s not one point of view in all his songs. He’s trying to figure out where he went wrong, or where she went wrong. And the whole thing about the ghost [on “Little Ghost”]. It’s just like the Zombies’ “She’s Not There.” He’s in love with an apparition, an image on a screen.

K: There are a lot of ghost images on this record — and even fingers. Remember when he broke his finger in the car wreck with her? In “White Moon,” he goes, “A mirage, this garage/And a photo montage/And a finger massage from the host/Good lord, good lord/The one I adore/And I cannot afford is a ghost.”

J: This is a guy who feels like he was turned inside-out. Maybe that’s why it’s so sparse. It’s much more minimalist: There’s no electric guitars, it’s all piano and marimbas and weird rhythm instruments and acoustic guitar — it’s just as bare as the way he feels.

K: And there are no hooks, no choruses you can sing along to, and none of the pleasure of pop songwriting is there at all.

J: Maybe its like Beck’s Sea Change. “Get behind me Satan” — maybe it’s the temptation to go back to her. Is she the devil, is she the nurse, is she the movie star? Did he get married so quickly because she just got married so quickly?

K: He just got married?

J: Yeah, he married Karen Elson, that model in the “Blue Orchid” video.

K: He’s obsessed with redheads . . . Rita Hayworth, and the girl in “Fell in Love With a Girl” . . . and his girlfriend from the Von Bondies was a redhead. But why did he have to marry a model? He acts so iconoclastic, but then he fulfills all these rock-star stereotypes.

J: He really does.

K: My favorite song is “Forever for Her (Is Over for Me).” It’s the one really heart-on-his-sleeve romantic song, and it’s got that Cole Porter reference. There are two different songs here that reference “Let’s Do It.” He’s like, let’s do it, just get on a plane!

J: Get up and forget about the rest of it, forget about our celebrity and just be normal people and be in love.

K: He says, “Everybody’s reaction is changing you/But their love is only a fraction of what I can give to you.”

J: He was supposed to call this album Let’s Play the Victim. So maybe that’s what he’s doing.

K: My problem with the record is that all the fun of songcraft isn’t there.

J: I totally agree that there’s no fun here. This is a very serious record.

K: Maybe he’s saying, Fuck it, I don’t have to be perfect and brilliant every time.

J: But it’s not bad! The musicianship is great! The anxiousness is amplified in the atonal things; the band deconstructs right in the middle of something rather melodic —

K: That’s the problem!

J: Well, yeah, it’s true — it’s imperfect, it’s messy, just like emotions.

K: And there’s very little sexuality.

J: There’s nothing sexy about this.

K: So, do you think this is one weird moment in their career, or the beginning of the end?

J: I think this is just a moment. You have to go through something to get to the other side. This album’s subtitle, to me, is “How To Dismantle an Atomic Bond.” Okay, so it’s not fun — I don’t have to be entertained in a rollicking way all the time. I think he’s got a plan, and this is him exercising some different muscles right now — and exorcising her.

K: I don’t have to be entertained all the time, but I always count on them to make substantial, weighty albums that hang together and feel like the work of a year. But I feel he put all his creative mojo and love into the Loretta Lynn record, maybe because it wasn’t his, and it was easier to focus on another person. But back to Rita Hayworth — his muse, his stand-in lover—

J: Yes, when he has that dialogue with [Hayworth] in “Take Take Take.” It’s that whole cannibalization of celebrity, where he keeps asking her for one more thing . . . an autograph, a photograph — I hate to bug you ma’am. Is that how he sees himself in relationship to his Renée Zellweger? Or is this about [him] as the victim of celebrity?

K: I think he has an outsider, Midwesterner’s fascination and obsession with celebrity and Hollywood — which is evidenced in the fact that he was in a couple different movies.

J: It’s an exploration into the dark heart of celebrity culture. Yet he didn’t come out the other side. And that’s okay — unless you’re gonna complain about it. Accept your inclinations, accept the fact that you are famous and you hobnob with famous people — don’t deconstruct celebrity if you’re going to stay in celebrityhood. He protests too much.

K: That’s what Courtney Love does.

J: Yeah, it is, he’s totally fascinated by that, but he holds himself away from it — he gives very few interviews. He does have that love-hate relationship with it. It’s not just “I’m a victim”; he’s pissed as hell this didn’t work out. “Little Ghost” is probably the most hurtful — “When I held her I was really holding air . . .” He’s trying to hurt her. This is revenge served cold. And the Rita part is — I think Rita’s a stand-in for Renée.

K: Or is Renée a stand-in for Rita?

J: Absolutely — it’s his romance with celebrity. I think he’s still in that maze. He’s a rat in a maze and he’s not out yet.

K: This is such a classic country song title — “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet).”

J: There’s that one line you can barely hear — I turned my stereo up and I realized, he’s not lonely enough yet to kill himself in the river. You realize how bad off he is, but he pulls himself back from the brink. And as the last track on the album, that’s the ray of hope.

THE WHITE STRIPES | Get Behind Me Satan (V2)

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