Contrary to what you may have heard, Jack White has not used the atom-split guitar fury of Icky Thump to blow back his sound into the nerve-jangled, skeletal Dee-troit blues of 1999’s White Stripes and 2000’s De Stijl. Nor has his music become excessively political, despite the inclusion of such lyrics as “White Americans, what?/ Nothing better to do?/ Why don’t you kick yourself out/ You’re an immigrant, too” careering throughout the “Icky Thump” single. That sleek yet loose-limbed monster was Frankensteined from the hard disco wail of “Blue Orchid” and the vibratory hum of the Stripes’ Tegan and Sara cover “Walking with a Ghost,” creating what is arguably the band’s best single since “Fell in Love with a Girl.”
No, the hyper-eclectic Icky Thump is not quite the return to the early days that some might have you believe. Or rather, it is, but not in terms of sonic architecture. The White Stripes are loud again, sure, with sharp and jagged guitar fills winding and twisting throughout the disc like abducted lightning, but this has nothing to do with the first two LPs. Where Icky Thump finds its aural counterpoint in De Stijl is in its ability to turn its governing aesthetic (every Stripes album has one) into its very subject matter. Whereas De Stijl was concerned with the neoplasticist art of reduction, Thump focuses on the acquisition and inclusion of diversity as its primary musical guidepost and thematic interest.
This is obvious not only in the pro-diversification lyrics and borderline suite-like sound of the title track, but also in the album as a whole. After the quiet evolution of the marimba-driven Get Behind Me Satan (2005), Jack White’s porous borders not only allow for the return of blues-rock in such blistering explosions as “Little Cream Soda” and “Bone Broke,” but they also let in an irresistibly swaggering country-rock groove with “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do What You’re Told)”; a Gaelic folk refraction of Satan‘s evocative acoustic sprawl in “Prickly Thorn, but Sweetly Worn,” replete with bagpipes and synthesizers; and a “Prickly Thorn” sequel, “St. Andrew (This Battle Is in the Air),” a synth-driven studio vamp with Meg White’s spoken-word vocals revolving around a “Tomorrow Never Knows” ambient clatter.
This focus on their Stones-like ability to reinterpret the sounds of the past and construct them into new, visceral music reaches its apex in the album’s humorous centerpiece, the rambunctious “Rag and Bone.” A loud and messy rocker interspersed with Otis Redding “Tramp”-style call-and-response vocals between Jack and Meg, the song presents the duo walking through the halls of music history (“It’s like a mansion/ Look at all this stuff!”) and sifting through the forgotten silt and buildup of yesterday to find their inspiration for the future (“It’s just things you don’t want/ I can use ’em/ Meg can use ’em/ We can do something with ’em/ We’ll make something out of ’em”). It’s with this song, with its drawled delivery and snarling, gnarled guitars, that Jack White solidifies Icky Thump‘s rulebook and theme as one and the same: that the inclusion of the outside world, both past and present, is the only guide to a future not completely homogenized, musically or otherwise.
Like the White Album, Exile on Mainstreet, or Wowee Zowee, this album’s risky lack of sonic cohesion becomes the very through line that binds the work as a whole. Unlike those albums, however, not all of the experiments here are uniformly excellent or thrilling, nor do they all live up to the promise of the wonderful, muted Satan. But in a way, its uneven nature renders Icky Thump as a paradoxical new breakthrough in rock music — it ends up sounding like a sampler from the future, like some haphazard best-of from 2025 or so, presenting the songs that will document the genres and albums to be soon explored by the Stripes. It’s only in this line of thinking does it make sense to hear the squalling spaghetti-western trumpet bleats of the gender dogfight “Conquest” sharing space with the philosophical, country-fried Delta jaunt of closer “Effect and Cause” and all the songs in between. And though that bizarre achievement doesn’t quite allow Icky Thump to top the White Stripes’ previous releases (which they usually do), it does set the bar monumentally high for the band’s future.