There are still only two of them. But now they sound like an army. The White Stripes made Elephant, their fourth album, in just two weeks last year, at a London studio outfitted with an eight-track tape machine and recording gear that predates the Beatles. But the Detroit duo walked out with a work of pulverizing perfection. Singer-guitarist Jack White and his ex-wife, drummer Meg — the undisputed king and queen of the new garage movement — finally romp and rattle like a fully armed band. It is a glorious thing to hear. It will be one of the best things you hear all year.
There is, for starters, true bottom here, for the first time on a White Stripes record. Jack's dancing-cobra bass line announces, then underpins, Elephant's opening fight song, "Seven Nation Army." He also plays a low, pumping lick, pinned to Meg's kick-drum pulse, that anchors the black stomp "The Hardest Button to Button."
There is big action in the upper registers as well. In the vicious title chorus of "There's No Home for You Here," Jack subdivides his voice into a choir of Freddie Mercurys, icing his granite guitars and dirty electric piano with high hallelujah. The White Stripes dedicated their first three albums to roots-music giants: the bluesmen Son House and Blind Willie McTell and country singer Loretta Lynn. Elephant marks the crossroads where that idealism collides with the swagger and snort of Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti and Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols.
But that gutbucket majesty is just half of the triumph here. On Elephant, Jack White writes and sings with the same depth and viscera, exceeding the plantation holler of 2000's De Stijl and 2001's White Blood Cells with blues that both pop and bleed. "Black Math" and "Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine" shake with equal measures of Lightnin' Hopkins' crude strum, Marc Bolan's sequined boogie and the cut-'n'-thrust song hooks of the Buzzcocks. In "Black Math," Jack actually wrenches his voice into the hobbitlike bark of '71 Bolan.
For all of his blues-purist ardor, Jack never stoops to sharecropper jive. He writes in wordy avalanches of bald accusation and self-doubt. In "I Want to Be the Boy . . ." Jack uses saloon piano and elegiac bottleneck guitar to sweetly frame his flood of insecurity ("What kind of cartwheels do I have to pull?/What kind of jokes should I lay on her now?/I'm inclined to go finish high school/Just to make her notice I'm around"). He opts for heavy artillery to steady his shivers in "The Air Near My Fingers": a "Wild Thing"-style riff and a thundering bridge with hot whistles of circus-organ-like keyboard. "I get nervous when she comes around," Jack chatters repeatedly; you can feel his heart beating against his rib cage.
Meg excels in those surroundings. Her drumming is often a simple blend of tom-tom beats and cymbal splashes. But she swings — rough yet hard, underlining Jack's guitars and vocals with the boom of the late John Bonham and the limber time of a juke-joint thumper. And as a guitarist, Jack exploits his Ph.D. in distortion to the fullest on Elephant. In the White Stripes' theatrical mauling of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David ballad "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself," the guitars veer from rumpled strum to car-horn fuzz and, at one point, an extraordinary squeal of death-ray feedback. "Ball and Biscuit" is the closest Elephant gets to straight blues; it also gives Jack seven minutes to show off the orchestral possibilities of amp violence.
Some of the raw grandeur of this record won't make it to the stage: The White Stripes are still a duo. They're sticking with that red-and-white thing, too. But with Elephant, their blues now come in living color.