The White Stripes' Elephant is not a five-star album. In fact, Elephant's not even the fashionable two-piece garage band's best record. That's still 2000's De Stijl, which years from now may be seen as essential, the blueprint that got this whole burgeoning march toward a renewed simplicity and joy rolling.
But the new disc comes real close. It certainly isn't lacking in fun, invention or diversity. Nor does it lack the ambition to be a classic. Simply wonderful are the propulsive opener "Seven Nation Army" and closer "Well It's True That We Love One Another," a coyly sung three-way talking blues between ex-husband-and-wife Jack White and Meg White, and guest Holly Golightly. In between, Jack White's songs alternate between searing ("Black Math"), bittersweet (the gorgeous "You've Got Her in Your Pocket"), bluesy ("Ball and Biscuit") and goofy ("Little Acorns," which features a spoken intro recommending squirrel-watching as a cure for depression). The Stripes recorded Elephant with antiquated eight-track equipment, which gives the album a retro crackle and an echo that befits the duo's charm and impenetrable cool. It's a sensational listen, a breakout pop record.
Yet it's not perfect. Sophisticated listeners, critics and the folks who hopped on the Stripes' red-and-white bandwagon with 2001's much-hyped White Blood Cells sure want Elephant to be perfect. The White Stripes, a band with a brilliant gimmick, may be approaching the end of their idea rope. The duo takes vernacular music and the dirtiest of rock 'n' roll and converts them to childlike minimalism (Meg White ain't a trained drummer, and she ain't tryin' to sound like one, either). That works spectacularly well with blues and with Zeppelin boogie-oogie and even with New Wave. As Jack White grows as a songwriter, though, and as he discovers new sources to dig -- for instance Burt Bacharach, whose "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself" is covered here -- he may find the guitar-and-drum thing working less. The Bacharach exercise begs for a full arrangement, and without an emergency bass line, "Seven Nation Army" might suffer (with it, it's a candidate for the year's best single). Jack also seems to be finding limits even within the stuff that does work. "There's No Home for You Here" is very nearly a facsimile of White Blood Cells' "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground." That's disconcerting.
Ultimately, the White Stripes are redefining musical integrity at a time when most artists have abandoned it. That makes Elephant important. Just don't give it five stars.