Icky Thump opens with a wandering organ scale and a steady bass beat. It’s a transmission, and the White Stripes are waiting for an answer. Forty seconds into the title track, they receive their signal: an unapologetic, unrelenting electric guitar rift that aims for center mass. A guitar hook like the one in “Icky Thump” is hard to put into words. It is visceral and arresting, like falling in love, only louder. Houston, we have a White Stripes album.
“Icky Thump,” the song, landed solidly at number 26 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, but it remains something of an oddity as a single. The subject is topical, immigration, and the chorus, a mocking string of la, la, la’s, serves only to make the inevitable reprise of that bone melting guitar line more alien.
The album that follows is a disorienting jumble unified only by Jack’s infectious guitar freakouts and strident lyrical delivery. There are bagpipes, synthesizers, and mariachi trumpets. There are rock songs and requiems. It’s a difficult trail to follow; the band is always out-of-reach but clearly visible on the horizon.
The remoteness of the White Stripes is one trademark of a band that has always excelled at portraying themselves as mythical. Jack and Meg give no easy answers about their relationship, their art, or their choice of wardrobe. They want you where you are, following them where they lead, never close, always in the distance.
This self-imposed isolation can limit Jack as a songwriter. “On 100 M.P.H. Torrentional Outpour Blues,” he sings. “And it’s that color that never fails to turn me blue, so I just swallow it.” The listener gets the impression that Jack was about to revel something about himself or his worldview, but then reconsidered.
The guitar break that follows is meant, purposefully, to provide space. It swirls Jack upward and lands him lightly on a pedestal where he can be admired safely. This reserve means that the White Stripes never write songs that live inside their audience, and they aren’t designed that way. They are instead the musical equivalent of Stonehenge.
The eclectic nature of Icky Thump can be explained by the album’s ninth track, “Rag and Bone.” In the song, Meg and Jack trawl a mansion for underappreciated curiosities. “Bring out your junk, and we’ll give it a home,” Jack quips. The challenge goes a long way to explain the bagpipes and the mariachi band. The White Stripes see value in the diverse, opportunity in the unexpected.
The etymological home of the album title is Lancashire, English. The phrase “Icky Thump” literally means, “What the heck?” The title is not meant to be clever, and it does not provide any practical insight explaining the album’s content. It’s simply one more piece to puzzle over. But as I listened to the album for the 10th time, following its bewildering twists and admiring its noise, it occurred to me that title was perfect and provided me with what my lexicon lacked: a phrase foreign enough to articulate how I felt about the record. Finally in possession of the right words, I said/spoke the title out loud and to no one in particular. Icky thump, it was a question. —Warner Bros. 2007