Bagpipes. Marachi trumpets. Lyrical motifs about red headed women. Lancashire expressions previously made famous by the Goodies deliberately mis-spelt. Welcome back to the most famous siblings/ex-spouses (delete according to which myth you believe) in rock.
Icky Thump was the record that some people thought we may not see. After the success of Jack White’s other band The Raconteurs, there were some who wondered whether we’d ever hear that unique chemistry between Jack and Meg ever again. Yet reunited they are, and from the outset it’s clear that they’ve lost none of that old magic.
Immediately it’s clear that this is a return to old-school White Stripes. Gone are the marimbas, piano, disco and chimes that ran through Get Behind Me Satan. Icky Thump makes its intentions clear from the offset with Meg’s thumping drums, an eerie keyboard sound and then a huge guitar riff that threatens to rip through your speaker.
In truth, when you first hear the title track, you’re not entirely sure what to make of it. Is it really necessary to have that squealing keyboard riff that sounds like bagpipes being played backwards? By the third or fourth time you listen to the song you realise that, yes, it’s absolutely necessary.
In a typically perverse Stripes move, the insanity of the title track is followed by probably the most accessible song that Jack White has written yet in You Don’t Know What Love Is. An uplifting slice of almost country-rock, Jack’s guitar swoops and slides as he sings a chorus so instantly familiar that you think for a minute it’s actually some sort of obscure cover version.
Talking of obscure cover versions, the berserk Conquest is a rendition of an old Patti Page song – there’s a blast of marachi trumpets, Mexican trumpets and Jack doing his best Robert Plant impression. It sounds absolutely mental, and rather like the title track, you’ll probably be staring at your speakers wondering what the hell’s going on. But it does make a delirious kind of sense.
Sometimes, it all seems like Jack and Meg are finally losing the plot – Prickly Thorn But Sweetly Worn just goes a bit too prog, with bagpipes and a folky ‘li de li de li oh oh’ chorus. It’s bearable, but when it segues into the inconsequential St Andrews (This Battle Is In The Air), 90 seconds worth of Meg speaking over some bagpipes, you’ll be hard pressed not to press the skip button.
Yet that’s the only time that Icky Thump goes a bit awry. The second half of the album in particular is stunning – Rag And Bone skips along irresistibly while Jack and Meg play at scavenging around a house while bantering with each other sweetly, while I’m Slowly Turning Into You is just incredible, huge shuddering slabs of bluesy soul as a verse, before a crunching guitar riff introduces the chorus.
Even better is the sorrowful A Martyr For My Love For You, one of the best things that White’s ever written. A tale of the temptations of forbidden love, it crackles with raw power and energy, while the lyrics are some of White’s least cryptic yet (“I’m beginning to like you, so you probably won’t get what I’m going to do, I’m walking away from you”).
The joyful three chord strum of Effect And Cause closes the album, and by this time it’s clear that Jack and Meg have produced yet another masterpiece. It’s eccentric, it’s exhilarating, it is, in parts, absolutely insane. Yet it’s never less than absolutely compelling, which is what makes The White Stripes one of the greatest bands of modern times.