I bought this album at an airport and listened to it for the first time on an aeroplane. I felt this was a good way to experience the album since I'm not overly keen on flyingâ?¦so you know the focus on every guitar lick would be intense since I don't want to think about being up in the air. I guess the first thing that struck me was the overall look of the album: a cover containing simple shapes surrounding Jack and Meg (who looks about 13) and a Dutch name, De Stijl. That's alienating an audience straight away, really...having a name people will be unable to pronounce. So flipping through the sleeve I find some interesting ideas and quotations about this weird, shapely art they've used for the cover--the artists involved are Paul Overy, Gerrit Rietveld, Theo Van Deosburg and Vilmos Huszar...for all you Google kids. Jack likes to leave a little note in his album sleeves and this one ends with:
"Even if the goal of achieving beauty from simplicity is aesthetically less exciting, it may force the mind to acknowledge the simple components that make the complicated beautiful."
That's one thing to bear in mind before attempting to enjoy this album (and indeed most of the early White Stripes stuff) and before attempting to understand the dynamic behind this music. The Stripes hit music hard from Detroit, where the beautifully simple sore-throat blues was merging with the garage rock in a fusion of Motown delights unique to the city. You haven't lived until you've heard a heavy little garage rock band blast out soul numbers to a packed sweaty club at midnight, making everybody realise that dancing to music may be the greatest euphoria known to man. The White Stripes came from that scene and combining simplicity with passion has been their motto from the start. The blues is real, the blues don't lie.
De Stijl is the logical bridge from the debut raunch-fest into the more critically acclaimed, entirely self-written White Blood Cells pop album. De Stijl marks the transition period from "The Big Three Killed My Baby" to "Hotel Yorba." That transition point is never so clearly shown than in De Stijl's first track, the witty "You're Pretty Good Lookin' (For a Girl)", which is a catchy, upbeat and sweet number, resonant of '60s pop at its best with a twist of weird lyrics that give you unclear images in your head. This song is a damn good opener to this 13-piece picture. The slamming opening chord of the next track, "Hello Operator," is again catchy and resonant with a twist of darkness. Sincerely foot tap-inducing, "Hello" has many layers going for it when it fades the cool slide guitar of track 3, "Little Bird." This is the climax of the dark-worded opening, a sinister but cool blues song written by Jack as tribute to the blues masters.
Those three open the album with a contradictory sound, a blend of simple boot-stomping rhythms with dark, unclear lyrics. "Apple Blossom," track 4, cuts all that out with a little heartfelt offer of "Come and sit with me and talk awhile, let me see your pretty little smile, put your problems in a little pile and I will throw them out for you." It's a wonderful sounding piece that lifts the mood and pace of the album to a skip-along level. A similar track follows, but the tempo is slower and sadder. The music comes to silent. There is a gap. Then a strong riff hits you. This is track 6, one of the hardcore blues covers on the album. Jack does a tremendous job of attacking Son House's "Death Letter Blues"--it remains one of my favourite covers to this day. Faithful to the original, faithful to the times gone by. The only cover that equals it is the one later on in this album.
"Sister, Do You Know My Name?", "Truth Doesn't Make a Noise" and "A Boy's Best Friend" have a deeper feel to them. They seem to speak about personal experiences and are touching at times. "Truth Doesn't Make a Noise" is the best of these; it is a sincere, emotionally-charged number. The album turns back to simple before the big finish with, in my view, the weakest tracks on the album. These monuments to simple garage blues hold none of the magic of the past and not much power like those at the start of the albums. "Let's Build a Home," "Jumble Jumbl" and "Why Can't You Be Nicer to Me?" are all interesting but not very memorable. "Why Can't You Be Nicer to Me?" has a nice feel musically, but is a very flippant song in comparison with other tracks.
Then comes the final track, "Your Southern Can Is Mine." Jack came under scrutiny for this, choosing to cover an old sexist song from "Blind Willie" McTell. He rightly defends his case by saying that this is how the old blues men were and this is their music. The blues of the traditionally 12-string "Southern Can" show McTell at his worst, a possessive twisted man who abuses his wife for going downtown. Jack does not shy away from some of the heavier lyrics: "Ashes toashes, momma, sand to sand, when I hit you baby you know you'll feel my hand" and remains very faithful to the guitar and rhythm. A great cover ends with dialogue of McTell talking about a car crash. It is a fantastic way to end the album and really is the best use of voice clips (there are two more: a clip of Jack when he was younger incorrectly reciting "Little Red Box" and of a French voice I'm yet to identify) throughout the whole thing.
All in all, the album thrashes around the simple garage rock arena. It throws in some damn fine Delta blues along with pop influences. As I said before, it was a step in the Stripes' career toward White Blood Cells, before they got involved with country and western tunes. This was their second album, recorded in SW Detroit and it remains one of their finest. I recommend it if you're flying anywhere soon.