The cover of the White Stripes' third release depicts the Detroit duo surrounded by shadowy Ninja assassins who, as the last page of the CD booklet reveals, turn out to be friendly members of a media circus. Could this be a not-so-subtle indication of how Jack and Meg White feel about being thrust into the limelight and placed at the forefront of Detroit's burgeoning underground music scene? Whatever the case, Jack White spends a good portion of White Blood Cells simply being homesick and clinging to his roots. But as he sings on "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground," "Any man with a microphone/Can tell you what he loves the most." It would seem that the White Stripes aren't afraid of success -- they just aren't willing to trade their souls for it.
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On "Little Room," Jack ponders the necessity of requiring a "bigger room" while "working on something good." Is he vowing to remain faithful to the stripped-down musical ethos that served the Stripes' music so well on the last two albums? Or is the "bigger room" a sly reference to the major-label carrots being dangled before him?
In any case, the band's tried-and-true musical approach serves them well a third time on this latest batch of songs, which revel in the powerfully compelling interplay that can be wrought with just guitar and drums. With only an occasional infusion of sparse piano (courtesy of Jack White), White Blood Cells, like the band's previous two releases, is an exercise in getting a lot said with only a little music. Lyrically, however, Jack's songs give us more than they have previously, and they expose a little bit of his bitter nature -- listen to "I'm Finding It Harder to Be a Gentleman" and "The Same Boy You've Always Known," the latter of which includes the lines "I hope you know a strong man/Who can lend you a hand/Lowering my casket."
There is a conspicuous absence of cover material on the new album, and where the previous releases were given a bit of foundation from the likes of Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson and Son House, the new work spotlights Jack's range as a songwriter more effectively. "Fell in Love With a Girl" sounds like a bare-bones reworking of the Pretenders' "Middle of the Road" that somehow manages to rock 10 times harder. At the other end of the spectrum, the sweetly sentimental "We're Going to Be Friends" swoons like a playful Paul McCartney ditty, but with a sincerity that the Big Mac hasn't displayed since his prime.
There may well be a limit to what the White Stripes can do with their simple arrangements, but they clearly haven't yet reached it.