After a year spent in trend-piece captivity, finally the White Stripes get to be a band again. And a better one, as it turns out. All those pats on the back from the suits at MTV and Clear Channel must have felt like knives to Jack and Meg White, because they come out with muscles flexed and teeth bared: "I'm gonna fight em off," Jack snarls 16 seconds into "Seven Nation Army," the kick-in-the-door kickoff. "A seven nation army couldn't hold me back." "Black Math" is the roundhouse that follows that jab, with a heart full of napalm and a guitar riff full of itself, and rightly so. In two songs, everything that has grown on the White Stripes in the last year or so is shaved off and washed down the drain, never to be seen again. All that counts now: 14 songs and the two people who play them.
The key to Elephant is still the warm pressure front that develops between Meg's anyone-can-play-drums cool and Jack's I-can-play-anything heat, but the band's fourth album is more than same-shit, different-disc do-overs. There's more here than just rock and/or roll; Jack proves himself one of the few capable rock storytellers who isn't, you know, 60. The disc's soft middle, built around two lullabies for the working class ("I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother's Heart" and "You've Got Her in Your Pocket), is a Kinks-size reminder that nothin' in the world can stop Jack from worryin' 'bout that girl. Showing his range, he later plays the blue-balled bluesman on "Ball and a Biscuit" (as in: "Let's have a ball and a biscuit, sugar/And take our sweet little time about it") and participates in a garage à trois with Meg and Holly Golightly on "Well, It's True That We Love One Another."
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The heart of Elephant comes early, in a triptych that begins with "There's No Home for You Here," a kiss-off that, strangely enough, manages to find a home for Jimmy Page in a Queen song. It continues through a fragile-then-frantic take on the Bacharach/David classic "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself" before concluding with Meg's answer to the first song, "In the Cold, Cold Night," spare as a tire in a trunk and soft as a blown kiss. "I can't stand it any longer," she sings. "I need the fuel to make my fire bright/So don't fight it any longer." Really, give in already.