Best Album Ever: The White Stripes' Elephant
[Editor's Note: Best Album Ever is a column where critics talk about their favorite records and what was happening in their lives when they got into them.]
When I was a junior in high school in 2001, my boyfriend took me to see Almost Famous. As the credits rolled, he opined that it was "pretty good" -- I knew then things wouldn't work out between us.
To me, Almost Famous was the life I aspired to, full of great music, groupies, glamour, good vibes, and rock hedonism. I wanted to be a rock star; I wanted to be a Band-Aid, but mostly, like the film's hero William Miller, I wanted to be a music journalist.
But wait, was I too late? "It's over," the Lester Bangs character tells Miller, about rock music generally. "You got here just in time for the death rattle."
Fast forward to college where, naturally, the people who loved me encouraged me to study something different than journalism. I took their advice, as the internet was clearly killing both the music and journalism industries. But then, in 2003, The White Stripes' Elephant came out.
The fourth full length LP from the Detroit duo, Elephant had it all. Album opener "Seven Nation Army" was a rock and roll call to arms, with the sound then veering to raw garage noise with "Black Math," which is followed by one of Jack White's -- and music's -- greatest fuck you songs, "There's No Home For You Here Girl."
Next is a three song run of romance that starts with a badass cover of Burt Bacharach's "I Don't Know What To Do With Myself" (complete with Kate Moss pole dancing in the music video), followed by the plaintive "I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother's Heart," and the heartsick "You've Got Her In Your Pocket." Meg White's spooky vocal cameo on "In the Cold Cold Night" sums up her role as the band's strange, silent member (and a very under-appreciated drummer.) The whole operation then gets back to rocking with the lusty blues ballad "Ball and Biscuit."
The band Stillwater from Almost Famous was based on Led Zeppelin, and like that group's III, Elephant's greatness was rooted in both balls to the wall rockers and gentle acoustic ballads. The album was visceral, angry, romantic, kooky, perfect. I loved it.
Jack and Meg were rock stars in the classical sense, eccentric with their peculiar red and white candy stripes outfits and, in the grand tradition of Dylan, unafraid to mess with the media. (They told journalists they were brother and sister, when in fact they were a divorced husband and wife.) They were exactly the kind of people I wanted to be writing about.
In the spring and fall of 2003 I listened to "The Hardest Button to Button" on repeat while drinking Mountain Dew in my dorm room. It was then that I said "fuck it." If rock was as alive and well as the opening riff of "Girl You Have No Faith In Medicine" suggested, then I was going to be a goddamn rock journalist.
I wrote this article for free and was thrilled to do so.
I applied to the University of Wisconsin's journalism school and was promptly rejected. Undeterred, I began writing for the college newspaper, doing album reviews and covering shows by a then unknown band called My Morning Jacket, who played a shitty bar down the street from my apartment. I was getting free CDs and comped concert tickets. These were formative experiences. The thrill of seeing my name in print was even more exciting, a small sliver of the feeling, I imagined, a musician gets when performing for an adoring audience.