By ’ick, we’re into the Top Ten.
Most of these end-of-decade lists have had a White Stripes record or two numbered in their ranks – clearly they’re an ‘important’ band (hmm) – and in that respect mine is no different.
However, unlike the others I’ve not chosen the admittedly impressive Elephant (2003), the deeply flawed but intermittently excellent White Blood Cells (2001), or even fan favourite De Stijl (2000). Nope, I’m plumping for this baby, Meg and Jack’s sixth outing and in my view, their most accomplished to date.
There are so many good songs on Icky Thump it’s hard to know where to begin. The quite phenomenally good acoustic closing number Effect And Cause? The exhilarating country-rock merriment of You Don’t Know What Love Is? The bottleneck blues mix of Dylan and Led Zeppelin on 300mph Torrential Outpour Blues? There’s not a bad track in sight.
It seems the Detroit duo still haven’t come home to roost: after embracing English culture and recording studios with their two previous records, Icky Thump, despite the bastardisation of Mrs. Jack White’s Lancastrian exclamation ‘Hecky thump’ in the title, has more of a Celtic lilt to it. Look no further than Jim Drury’s bagpipes mid-record, which fit far better than they have any right to.
It’s not the only inspiration from leftfield: I’m Slowly Turning Into You was born from a music video. Michel Gondry directed a video with no backing, then Jack wrote the song to it. How, then, it came to be one of the best songs on the album I have no idea.
Lyrically, Icky Thump shows The White Stripes to be a touch more mature than in previous efforts. Reminiscing about school and adolescence is gone in favour of political pokery (“Americans – what, nothing better to do? Why don’t you kick yourself out? You’re an immigrant too”) and, in the superb blues song Effect And Cause, wry observations on blame-casting in a break-up:
I ain’t sayin’ I’m innocent – in fact, the reverse
But if you’re headed to the grave you don’t blame the hearse
You’re like a little girl yelling at her brother ’cos you lost his ball
The strange thing, and best thing, about Icky Thump is how it is simultaneously like their old records – specifically their 1999 self-titled debut, all garage punk riffs and covers of blues songs – while ploughing a new furrow, toying with longer songs and instruments new to the band. For while the experiments earn their place, one of the undisputed highlights is simple rock cruncher Little Cream Soda. It’s loud in exactly the right way.
After the piano pop disappointment of Get Behind Me Satan, it’s also heartening to hear a return for Jack’s incredible electric guitar skills. There are solos aplenty, but it’s not self-indulgent; indeed, on I’m Slowly Turning Into You Jack hides a virtuoso solo behind a vocal outro.
Catch Hell Blues is the closest you’ll get to guitar-wank, with White basically having a good time on a slide guitar for four minutes. Naturally he’s very good, but the whole effect isn’t as bluesy as you feel he would like. Still a good song though.
It’s an album of instant hits (even shy ballad A Martyr For My Love For You is ripped up into an uplifting rocker), which is why I find it odd they released Conquest as a single, the mariachi-punk cover of Patti Page’s classic. It’s hardly the White Stripes at their best, even if it is great fun.
Quibbles all. Icky Thump is a fantastic record – surely The White Stripes’ best in my opinion, even if no one shares that view – and it would be nice, really, if Jack White stopped fucking around and got on with making the follow-up.