New White Stripes song. Cool title. “Icky Thump.” Same as the title of the forthcoming album. It’s also an onomatopoeic description of the song itself. It’s icky and it’s thumpy. Come to think of it, that’s an apt description of the band, period. Jack is icky. Meg is thumpy.
A lot of great songs sound icky the first few times you hear ’em. For me, Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” would be a prime example. In fact, a lot of Zeppelin’s most important stuff is like that. This superficial ugliness is often a harbinger of a song’s enduring quality. The first 74 times you hear it, it sounds ugly. And then, in a moment, the song sheds its hard shell and reveals a beautiful beating heart, and forevermore it sounds triumphant, swaggering and important.
Weirdly, for all the ways I have loved the White Stripes, they’ve never been icky like that for me. Their sound has never put me off, though it can be abrasive. To me, their sound is comparable to the smell of gasoline — delicious and potentially toxic, but something I’ve enjoyed from first exposure. Furthermore, I’ve always known right away which White Stripes songs and albums I’d like the best — and those feelings have never changed.
But this time, I’m not digging the “Icky Thump,” and given my history with the band, I’m worried. Compare this moment, for example, to the release of “Seven Nation Army,” 2003’s advance single. (Look up the video on YouTube. ) That was the type of song that you “got” right away, though it was somewhat complicated. It was smart and dumb, and serious and funny, all in good ways, and you could grok it conceptually and groovadelically, all at the same time. It gave instant yet enduring pleasure.
Historically, that’s sorta how it’s been for me with the White Stripes — and I can probably thank Led Zep for that. The further I go with the Stripes, the more I understand that my fondness for them is only made possible by Led Zeppelin. Because of the beautiful ugliness of Led Zeppelin, and because of the way they abused and bloodied and ultimately reshaped my ears, I am able to listen straight through the surface of the White Stripes and feel something of its essence on first listen. (I know they’re probably sick to death of Zeppelin comparisons, but I would like to assure them, this is and will always be a form of high praise.)
What’s so eternally compelling about the Stripes, and makes them artier than other Zeppelin-based bands like, say, Wolfmother, is that their inside is so very different from their outside. Unlike Led Zep, the White Stripes are, at their core, an idea-based band. To love them is to love the ideas they play with. It’s a strange thing, but as visceral and gritty as their sound may be, the essence of this band is located between Jack White’s ears. In fact, they are so cerebral, they need those primitive sonics to prevent them from becoming a pure concept band.
In this sense, the White Stripes aren’t Led Zeppelin; they’re the Velvet Underground: an art project in the form of a rock band.
So why don’t I love the “Icky Thump”? The good news is that it exists at all, and the band is not broken up, and we can look forward to a whole new album. But I’m starting to think that my initial icky feelings for the song are not going to evolve. The music isn’t bad or anything, but I am surprised that this is the debut single they chose. You hear it, and you say, “So… that’s it?” It’s got a decent Zeppeliny riff and some cool-ass guitar effects, and the production is as stylishly troggish as always, but you keep waiting for the actual song to kick in — you know, the music this music represents. Instead, the song just kinda chugs along and then fades out. More than a song, it feels to me like an exercise in style, a reiteration of the band’s aesthetics. Granted, in a way, that’s impressive — it’s usually impossible for successful rockers to maintain any sense of informal charm. But (could it be?) I almost wonder if the Stripes are trying hard enough. We’ll see.
At least we know that title’s workin’ overtime.
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