Get Behind Me Satan is elemental. Natural. It’s about the most simple, most primordial, most universal, most basic, yet most personally dramatic experiences that people can have: love, betrayal, longing, reversals of fortune, frustration, death, coming to terms.


(2005) Music Review

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1. Blue Orchid Listen
2. The Nurse Listen
3. My Doorbell Listen
4. Forever For Her (Is Over For Me) Listen
5. Little Ghost Listen
6. The Denial Twist Listen
7. White Moon Listen
8. Instinct Blues Listen
9. Passive Manipulation Listen
10. Take, Take, Take Listen
11. As Ugly As I Seem Listen
12. Red Rain Listen
13. I'm Lonely (But I Ain't That Lonely Yet) Listen

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Artist: The White Stripes

Label: V2. / Bmg

Their fifth album, Get Behind Me Satan is the strangest and least focused effort by these unlikely garage rock superstars to date. It's also their finest, an Exile on Main Street-ish mish-mash where the sum is greater than the parts. In a market increasingly driven by singles and downloads, it's nice to be reminded how exciting an album can be, especially one where you really don't know what to expect next. There are a lot fewer pounding guitars on this album. They've largely been replaced by pounding pianos. Most songs sound like rough mixes at first; almost every song has something exceptionally loud in the mix--the guitar solo in "The Nurse," the drums in "Doorbell," everything in "Blue Orchid." After a few listens, however, it becomes clear that the group is not using the studio as an instrument so much as exposing the nuts and bolts in the process along the way.

There are some duds; the wanky blooze-rawk number "Instinct Blues" goes on way too long and it would be nice if "The Nurse" had a real chorus. Whether "Passive Manipulation" is about the wife-or-sister schtick, if the cover artwork indeed has Jack and Meg calling each other devils, and which scripture is referred to by the album's title (Matthew, Mark or Luke?): none of that matters so much as the fact that this album is strangely sprawling and obliquely ass-kicking at the same time. "Orchid" is a rockdisko sonic smash that shows how to really get rock kids on the dancefloor. Meanwhile, "Doorbell" sounds enough like the Jackson Five to totally rule, and "Forever for Her" is the best ballad Jack's written in years. The fact that some marimbas provide the driving force to "Forever" makes it all the better. --Mike McGonigal

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Get Behind Me Satan is elemental. Natural. It’s about the most simple, most primordial, most universal, most basic, yet most personally dramatic experiences that people can have: love, betrayal, longing, reversals of fortune, frustration, death, coming to terms. The album’s minimalist approach to instrumentation matches its minimalist approach to theme—its eccentric approach to style and arrangement matches its eccentric way of presenting theme. And the result is Beatlesesque. Poe inspired. Robustly human in a big, biblical way. The result is a great album, even without the White Stripes’ history of great albums.

Like later Beatles music, the Detroit-based White Stripes have always had an aura of “artsiness” and meaning about their music. “What do Jack White’s mysterious, childlike lyrics mean?” we ask, much as people used to ask, “Who is the walrus?” “What does this cover artwork mean?” we ask, much as people did with Sergeant Pepper. “What are they really like?” we ask of the band—Jack and Meg White, who have variously been thought to be brother and sister, husband and wife, or not related at all (turns out, they’re ex-husband-and-wife)—much as the personal lives of the Fab Four have always intrigued. There’s an enjoyment that comes from the apparent symbolic meaning of the music, the lyrics, the artwork, the color-coordinated costumes, the lives—an enjoyment that can definitely be had with GBMS. It’s enjoyable to wonder why, for example, Jack does things like adding the sound of a phone ringing over a line in “Take, Take, Take”—my personal favorite track. Or why the songs end the way they do, begin the way they do, feature particular instruments, become exercises in stereo panning or using chorus and reverb. Everything, the aura of the band gives the sense, is there for a reason.

And many times on GBMS, this sense of symbolic meaning facilitates songs that are dark, Edgar Allan Poe inspired narratives. “The Nurse” is a tale of danger, where the one you trust is exactly the one you shouldn’t. In “Little Ghost,” the storyteller is in love with an “apparition” that only he can see. “Take, Take, Take” finds its narrator in a “seedy” bar, where he encounters 1940s actress Rita Hayworth. Is it really happening? Is she a ghost? Is this the past? “Red Rain” has the same feel: the speaker stands in the “red rain” (blood?), calling for a girl who never answers. All of this has shades of Poe’s obsessions with betrayal, with unattainable or dead women, with fixation and love. Shades of “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee.” And don’t forget that Poe married his cousin and wrote about incest—here the White Stripes toy with the idea of incest in “Passive Manipulation,” as they have in the past.

Like the Beatles did with the White Album, the White Stripes have created their most eclectic album with GBMS. “Blue Orchid” reprises their common guitar-plus-drums sound, but after that, everything is in play. Piano dominates many tracks, marimba two. The guitars are sometimes acoustic, sometimes played with a slide, sometimes sped-up with effects. Tambourine? Check. Fiddles? Check. Mandolin? Check. Depending on which song you hear, you might call this album folk, blues, country, rock, pop, soul, etc. The arrangements on GBMS are also unique, with not a traditional, verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus arrangement in sight. If you’ve listened to previous White Stripes albums, it’s probably enough to say that this album is lighter and different—not as “rocking,” but in an interesting, “experimental,” and good way.

Thematically, lyrically, Get Behind Me Satan is about those elemental experiences. Nearly every offering involves love and its accoutrements, usually negative ones. “Forever for Her (Is Over for Me)” is about losing someone, that someone being with someone else, and wanting that someone back. In “My Doorbell,” the singer is wanting someone to come back, yet wanting to be strong enough to not want that person back. “The Denial Twist:” infidelity, denial, moving on. “Take, Take, Take” and “As Ugly as I Seem,” to me, create a two-song suite about fame and the love of fans—a fan ambushes Rita Hayworth in a bar, Jack pleads for us to let him be him—but this is still riffing on love. “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)” finishes off the album with some humor, the same bitter-sweet longing for companionship, love, and family, yet a headstrong attitude.

Given all of this, is there a grand, overarching meaning to the whole of GBMS? A theme that would encompass, perhaps, the album cover, title, and lyrical content? I think so—at least, I have a theory. Starting with the cover: obvious religious references, Meg holding an apple like Eve, Jack holding something (is it supposed to be phallic?), with their backs to each other, fingers almost touching a la DaVinci’s Cistene Chapel, all under the ever-listening microphone (God? Fans?). Okay, we’ll come back to all that. The title: Get Behind Me Satan—another biblical reference. Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan” to Peter when he tries to stop Jesus from the course of action he’d chosen. Okay, I see a theme of moving on. Getting past someone else’s issues, even if that person doesn’t get their own issues. Doing what you have to do.

Does any of this fit with the actual lyrical themes? Definitely. Looking at each song, nearly every one features some kind of reversal or juxtaposition—a way it was and a way it has to be now. Each song features something to move on from. And it all kicks off with “Blue Orchid,” the only song to refer to the album’s title. Someone (Satan?) has “took a white orchid, turned it blue.” To me, this bespeaks the ultimate reversal, juxtaposition, betrayal: the biblical fall from innocence—definitely a theme Jack White is interested in. And, Jack is saying, this is the kind of thing, the kind of person, to “get behind” you. To move on from. On the cover, Jack and Meg have embraced their respective “things,” but have put each other behind, in the past . . . though the fingers betray that painful connection that’s still there, that requires songwriting.

So is it all just specifically about the Whites themselves? Is this an album about Jack and Meg splitting up? Moving on? I can’t say for sure, but I can say that the album applies to us all. Like the Bible itself, this is a big, eclectic collection of songs about the human experience, all circling around the theme that’s most central—conflict and resolution. Getting Satan behind you. And, like reading the Bible, listening to Get Behind Me Satan is like seeing yourself, and everyone you know, through a really interesting microscope. It magnifies, tells the truth, focuses on what’s important, gives insight, identifies your place, suggests future action. Like reading the Bible, listening to this album is a distinctly human activity, and definitely worthwhile.

The White Stripes: Biography

One of a new breed of back-to-basics rock acts to emerge from Detroit, Michigan, USA, the White Stripes comprises enigmatic bass-free duo Jack White (b. John Anthony Gillis, Detroit, Michigan, USA; guitar/vocals) and Meg White (b. Megan Martha White, Detroit, Michigan, USA; drums). The Whites, variously assumed to be husband and ex-wife or brother and sister, but both denied, formed their new band in 1997. Judging from their facial looks it initially seemed likely the duo were brother and sister, but the matter was confused by Jack White stating that the couple were once married and the posting of a marriage license and divorce certificate on the Internet.

Jack had previously played guitar in garage rock band the Go, but his new project's musical output is equally informed by folk blues, country 60s Britpop and Broadway show tunes. The Whites' striking stage presence, dressed in minimalist red and white outfits, is allied to their thrilling grasp of the rudiments of timeless rock music. The duo released 1997's debut 7-inch single, "Let's Shake Hands", on the Italy Records imprint. After one further single ("Lafayette Blues") for the label, they relocated to the leading independent Sympathy For The Record Industry, debuting with the single "The Big Three Killed My Baby". Their self-titled long-playing debut garnered immediate praise, mixing astute cover versions (Robert Johnson's "Stop Breaking Down Blues" and Bob Dylan's "One More Cup Of Coffee") with some devastating originals.

By the time of the following year's De Stijl, named after the Dutch abstract art movement led by Gerrit Rietveld, the media buzz surrounding the White Stripes had reached new heights. Of particular note was the duo's incredible reception in the UK, where their music was lauded by a wide range of media outlets including The Daily Telegraph, The Sun and even Radio 4's Today programme, not normally known for its liberal music policy. The influential John Peel was quoted as comparing their importance to that of Jimi Hendrix and the Sex Pistols. The dispute here is that both these acts were originators, whereas the Whites are very good interpreters. There are just too many shades of early Kinks, the Doors, Television and late 60s American garage/punk bands to warrant a major place in twenty-first century rock history. At least the Whites went some way to justifying the media hype surrounding them when they released an excellent third album, White Blood Cells. The follow-up Elephant was recorded at London's tiny Toe Rag Studios using analogue equipment and only eight tracks. The album offered a welcome respite from the deadening digital conformity of music in the new millennium.



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