When Jack White dubbed bass onto the first single of his fourth album, Elephant, I think that we all new a phase had come to an end. What's more there were no incredibly catchy, and also incredibly simple brain-stickers like You're Pretty Good Looking or Fell in Love With a Girl. Sure, there were plenty of great tracks on that album, but it was, well, different. It wasn't as clean and simple and joyful as the first three albums -- but then, we said, that's development, isn't it?
Fast forward a few years to Get Behind Me Satan -- Blue Orchid is, just as was intended, a total blueball experience, kicking off an album with far more orchestration than any of the previous four, one in which the sessions were fraught with problems, with off-rhythm crashes covering messups...but an album that seems to get better with age. The creepy "Did Jack sell his soul?" feeling, enhanced by the giant heart at the live show, the ghostly theme, and Rita Hayworth popping up again and again...and maybe best of all, My Doorbell, a song just as catchy as any Jack'd written before.
Then something unexpected happened. Jack White made an album with an old friend and released an album with a few incredibly catchy songs, that had a single which hit higher than any White Stripes single had.
And that, I think, is when it happened. The shark was jumped.
There's no shame in it -- it happens to everyone. Led Zep, the Stones...the Beatles...well it woulda...Paul has anyway. Often it happens at the moment of greatest commercial success -- didn't Led Zep IV turn that band into a caricature forever, even though they put out several excellent albums afterward? Michael Jackson did it with a ride at Disney World, for goodness sake -- at least he didn't go out like that!
There's nothing wrong with the album really: Icky Thump is a great tongue-in-cheek riff...there's a lot of play-acting and character creation here, which, yeah, Jack is good at. A south of the border theme? Timely. There's a fake-country last song...bagpipes...(Battle of Evermore?)...blah blah blah. Jack's guitar work has taken shape much more than even on GBMS...he's a true stylist as a lead guitarist now, which was of course missing from the early albums. But some of Sasha Frere-Jones comments about the previous album hit home with me now...yeah...Meg is really not that great a drummer, and her signature rides finally feel old here. But really the problem is more visceral...I just don't feel the boundless giddy joy that the old albums make me feel, even though most of the tracks are good. It's lost the sense of effortlessness that the old albums had, and as a listener, I need to labor as well.
And...worst of all...does the album keep breaking up audibly, or is that just me? This isn't warm sound of tape breaking up...this is the sound of digital equipment clipping. CLIPPING. Captured for all posterity in unchanging digital fidelity, never to be smoothed by a needle travelling again and again over the peaks and valleys of its waveforms.
It's for real. It's on the left channel, throughout the damn album...I'm not the only one who noticed. That, my friends is a fuckup. A big one, if you ask me -- am I going to have you buy the vinyl to avoid this? The answer, my friends, may be yes.
Oh, don't believe me? Ok -- does your system have a decent set of tweeters? Should be easy then. Put the cd on. Stick your head near the left speaker. When it gets loud there's a chhh chh kinda sound when the guitar is big...that's digital clipping. If you don't believe me, rip the track and look at it in Audacity. It's too hot. The lines go right from the top to the bottom, and then at the ends, there are flat spots -- that means the rest of the curve is lost, and the sound is distorted. When it's done right, the waveform looks curvy, and the biggest peaks just get near the edges -- they never go over.
Whoever mastered it (Vlado Meller, whose oeuvre includes Kenny G's Faith and Celine Dion's Let's Talk about Love, and, ok, Weezer's Green Album) just put it on disc too hot, and it sounds messed up. Obviously messed up. That is, as I understand it, exactly what you're trying to avoid when you master a disc. If I were Jack White, I'd have his head. As a consumer, I consider this recording to be defective.
But then if I were Jack White, my album just debuted at #2 on the US charts, and basically, even if my album is f'd up, it's still the hottest shiz out there. And all you rockers still need to buy my album...even if it (and I) have crossed over an important boundary, and lost a little something.