When The White Stripes' fifth album, Get Behind Me Satan, was released in June 2005, I was still a few months shy from my ninth birthday... something that may scare some of my readers [Ed. Note: It sure as hell scared your Managing Editor who was 16 that year]. This album was integrated into my consciousness just like all the music I had ever heard before. I cared nothing about release dates or who took inspiration from whom, knew little about any band's fame or the music fads of different time periods. Led Zeppelin, Zap Mama, Lauryn Hill, Stevie Wonder, Annie Lennox, Peter Gabriel, Susheela Raman, and so many others were all compressed into my mind like this. Once I learned of a new song or a new artist that I liked, it was like they had always existed. The White Stripes were much the same. Once I found out who they were, thanks to my father, it was like I had always known.
Get Behind Me Satan had no context, just like the rest of the music I had ever listened to. It might as well have just fallen into my lap out of the heavens, for all I cared. The only picture I had ever seen of Jack and Meg White was the album cover: the two of them, standing back to back but reaching for one another, Jack looking, for want of a better word, devilish with his then-signature mustache and goatee, and Meg cherubic as ever, white apple held aloft in her hand. Even the cover art foreshadows the crisp eeriness of this album.
While the band pared back instrumentals for a piano-heavy album, "Blue Orchid" used their newfound hyperminimalism to its advantage. The lyrics are clipped, leaving space between each word. That, combined with an ultra-simplistic beat, leaves plenty of space for breath, but seconds later your breath is whipped out of you by crashing cymbals. This song is infused with terror, fueled by pure energy.
Something that surely appealed to me when I was a kid and continues to appeal to me today is the way this album utilizes narrative. For instance, "Take, Take, Take" gives a fictionalized account of Jack White meeting Rita Hayworth, who of course passed away long before this song was written, and lurking around her, progressively becoming clingier, demanding more and more from his muse and getting frustrated when she departs. Is the song a critique of celebrity, a commentary on the difficult nature of inspiration, or just a figment of Jack White's imagination? We may never know, but the mythological elements of the song, paired with the barely-contained rage in what sounds at first listen like a chipper song, creates a song threatening to split open and spill its guts over you.
The album continues this fairytale of restless spirits. Meg displays her delicate, wavering vocals in the ditty "Passive Manipulation," a song whose brief thirty-five seconds I would play over and over again as a kid, knowing instinctively that it was going far over my head lyrically. "Women, listen to your mothers/Don't just succumb to the wishes of your brothers/Take a step back, take a look at one another/You need to know the difference between a father and a lover," she sings. "As Ugly As I Seem" rattles with the pain of looking for a home and being unable to find it. "I'm Lonely (But I Ain't That Lonely Yet)" is a piano-heavy, bluesy, stubborn lament, lacking a home yet too proud to look for one.
It was "The Denial Twist" that took hold of me more than any song I had heard before, a song that has outlived any song I've loved since. I don't remember the first time I heard it. I do, however, remember my dad making a mix CD for work with the song on it. His office was and still is in the attic of our house, the door to the stairway right across from my bedroom. Even if both doors are closed, I can usually hear his music clearly. I remember memorizing which song came before "The Denial Twist" on the CD, half by accident. And when it came on, I would sit very quietly on the bottom step, completely out of sight, and would wait for the Stripes to come on. I loved the song's anger, its ugliness, its fearfulness. Though I couldn't have put my finger on it at the time, I was drawn to the heavy, emphatic drums and how they were split into pieces by Jack's shrill, jagged vocals. In particular, I loved the part of the song when Jack's voice turns to a half-mumble, low enough to make me hold my breath in fear of making too much noise, saying, "The feeling that you're under/Can really make you wonder how the hell she can be so cold." Somehow with both musical and emotional power, with chaos and confusion, "The Denial Twist" has gripped me for longer than any other song ever has. The song may be about getting lost in the coils of a difficult, dishonest relationship, which is a ghost in its own right, but I've been happily lost in the coils of the song for about a decade now.
The White Stripes took rock music and, instead of putting it through a kaleidoscope, they skewed it slightly, distorting it into something hypnotizing and uncanny. Get Behind Me Satan is a myth of an album, a ghost story, one that has sowed itself deeply into the landscape of my memory.