From the start, Jack White has been full of mostly pleasant surprises. Who would have predicted that the rudimentary guitar-drum duo he formed with ex-wife Meg would grow to be so versatile, with each successive album adding new elements ranging from scuzzy blues to power ballads to hillbilly hollers? Who would have imagined Jack at the helm of a marvelous Loretta Lynn comeback record? Who would have expected the guitar solo on Elephant’s ”Ball and Biscuit” to emerge out of nowhere to rip your face off?
Get Behind Me Satan throws another grenade our way. With its two and a half minutes of boogie-screech guitar, door-knocking drums, demonic falsetto, and taunts of ”how old are you now, anyway?” the petulant ”Blue Orchid” blows the place wide open; it’s reminiscent of the way previous albums launched with attacks like ”Seven Nation Army” and ”Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground.” Having satisfied their urge to shred, the Whites proceed to tear their musical playhouse down. For a good chunk of the album, Jack trades in his electric guitar for piano — not to mention the very un-rock & roll marimba — which is somewhat akin to Pedro Martinez hurling a football.
Peculiar and ballsy, this gambit immediately sets the album apart from those of the robust, polished guitar bands that have sprung up since the Stripes helped give rock CPR at the dawn of the decade. With Meg playing even thumpier than usual (at times you may think she’s banging on a cardboard box or stomping her feet), the Stripes have rarely sounded scrappier. And for a while, the duo get away with it. ”The Nurse,” one of the tunes sprinkled with marimba, is a haunted, cryptic warning about trust; just when the arrangement threatens to mellow out, Meg’s drum or Jack’s guitar makes quick, intrusive jabs. ”My Doorbell,” with Jack bashing away at the piano and singing in a possessed-preacher yowl, is both dumb and rousing — a simplistic ditty (”…when you gonna ring it?”) with a kick.
Once the musical novelty wears off, though, the disc begins to unravel. Get Behind Me Satan is surprising, all right, but not always in the right ways. The tracks take on the feel of songwriting exercises in which Jack tries his hand at Led Zep levee-breaking blues (”Red Rain,” ”Instinct Blues”), poky singer-songwriter introspection (”White Moon”), a fragile Brit-folk ramble (”As Ugly as I Seem”), and hey-bartender honky-tonk (”I’m Lonely [But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet]”). The songs have their moments (the chorus of ”Red Rain,” with Jack’s high-pitched squeal and greasy-spoon slide guitar converging in brutalizing beauty, is about as gripping as the Stripes have ever been), but that’s all they are: moments.
Too many of the tunes — and Jack’s lyrics — are undercut by lurching, half-finished arrangements. (I kept wondering which songs are about Jack’s onetime flame Renée Zellweger. Since the two met while working on Cold Mountain, the grating faux-mountain song ”Little Ghost,” about a mystery woman who Jack ”can’t do much to please” and is soon gone, is a good bet.) Jack proved his range with far less self-consciousness on the band’s second album, De Stijl. Here, he’s trying too hard to be eccentric: ”Take, Take, Take,” with its alarm-clock effects and lines about getting wasted in a bar and seeing Rita Hayworth, is nearly incomprehensible.
Given how accomplished a songwriter and musician Jack is, it’s hard to say what’s transpiring on Get Behind Me Satan. Is he purposely making a low-rent album to deflate his self-created mythology, as Bob Dylan supposedly did with the abysmal Self Portrait? Is the very thing that makes him so appealing — the way he incarnates the nearly lost tradition of the unbridled, uninhibited rock & roll wild man that dates back to Jerry Lee — backfiring on him? Whatever the motive, Jack seems to be intentionally selling himself short to make a vague point about cred (or something), and it’s not to the benefit of his art; in fact, it’s mostly exasperating. When it comes to future surprises, perhaps Jack should try this one: selling out more.