I think we always knew the White Stripes weren’t going to be around forever, since they peaked so early with 2003‘s Elephant, which was perfect to the point that it was basically impossible to top. It was as good an album as a two-person band with an inherently limited sonic palette could be, and Jack White wisely realized this, branching out almost immediately after Elephant‘s release, beginning with his bluegrass contributions to the Cold Mountain soundtrack in 2003. By the time the Stripes returned with the follow-up Get Behind Me Satan in 2005, there were marimbas and pianos everywhere in a clear attempt to broaden the band’s sound and not repeat themselves. Jack made an album with a different band called The Raconteurs in 2006, which allowed for him to write for and play in a full band setting.
But he and Meg White returned with 2007‘s Icky Thump, which introduced bagpipes into the mix on a couple of tracks and a trumpet on another. Naturally, they toured that summer in support of the album, journeying across Canada, and in 2010 they released a black-and-white documentary that chronicles the tour with both on-stage and off-stage footage called Under Great White Northern Lights. An album of the same name was released, as well, consisting of the songs performed during the film. As it turns out, it’s the last album the White Stripes ever released, as Jack and Meg decided to end the White Stripes in early 2011. As a result, it’s a bittersweet triumph. The White Stripes never made a bad album, or even an album that wasn’t very good, so it’s nice that they went out on top, but I’ll always wish we could have had more.
They might have peaked with Elephant, but when I listened to Under Great White Northern Lights for the first time I realized this is the culmination of their career, so it means more to me than Elephant. Some of my favorite White Stripes songs are missing here, including “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” “The Denial Twist,” and “The Hardest Button to Button,” but no set list ever has everything you want, especially when it’s confined to a single CD. If you’re a White Stripes fan, this is the single best hour’s worth of music of theirs you can buy. The White Stripes’ records were all recorded quickly and cheaply, without the benefit — some would say hindrance — of grandiose studio flourishes and touches, even in their latter years when they became a major label act.
Their songs are quite primal as a result, making them the perfect live band. Jack White just goes out there and does his thing on the guitar, and Meg plays along on the drums. There’s really not much more to it than that, which is something I can really connect with, since it’s a lot like listening to someone play his guitar in his room. Everyone who ever plays guitar has that fantasy of playing just like one of your heroes when you’re sitting in your room, and as a Jack White fan, Under Great White Northern Lights taps into that for me. From the moment the bagpipes enter in the opening seconds of “Let’s Shake Hands,” only to be blasted apart by the “noise” of White’s guitar not long afterwards, it’s clear this is a pretty special live album. It chronicles one of the ’00s’ most original and inventive groups in their wheelhouse for the first time. The sheer muscle of it is just incredible.
The first several songs set the tempo and establish the energy, but it’s in the middle of the album where the Stripes really take off, from “Icky Thump” and my favorite track, “I’m Slowly Turning into You,” through a cover of Dolly Parton‘s “Jolene” and “300 M.P.H. Outpour Blues” to “We’re Going to Be Friends” and “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself.” There’s a transition track (“Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn”), and then it settles into some older material to close it out. It’s fitting that they titled this album Under Great White Northern Lights, because this is 100% white meat.