A lot changed in the White Stripes' world between Get Behind Me Satan and Icky Thump: Meg White moved to L.A., while Jack White left Detroit for Nashville, married and had a daughter, and formed the Raconteurs, a side project that won so much praise that some fans worried that it meant the end of the Stripes. Those fears were as unfounded as the speculation that White's new hometown meant that the band was going to "go country" (after all, Jack and Meg are wearing the costumes of London's Pearly Kings and Queens, not Nudie suits, on Icky Thump's cover). Though it was recorded at Nashville's state-of-the-art Blackbird Studio and covers everything from bagpipes to metal, Icky Thump is unmistakably a White Stripes album. The eclectic feel of Get Behind Me Satan remains, but is less obvious; interestingly, out of all the band's previous work, Icky Thump's brash and confessional songs most closely resemble De Stijl. "300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues"' acoustic blues and carefully crafted wordplay hark back to "Sister, Do You Know My Name." Meanwhile, "Rag & Bone" is a cute, ragamuffin cousin of "Let's Build a Home" that casts Jack and Meg as enterprising garbage-pickers; the sly grin in Jack's voice as he says "we'll give it a...home" is palpable. And, while Get Behind Me Satan was heavy on pianos, Icky Thump is just plain heavy, dominated by primal, stomping rock that feels like it's been caged for a very long time and is just now being released. Jack White's guitars are back in a big way; "Catch Hell Blues" is a particularly fine showcase for his playing. Once again, though, the Stripes defy expectations, and their "return to rock" isn't necessarily a return to the kind of rock they mastered on Elephant.
Aside from the searing "Bone Broke," which would fit on almost any White Stripes album (and in fact was partially written in 1998), on Icky Thump Jack and Meg push the boundaries of their louder side. Darker and slower than most Stripes singles, "Icky Thump" is their very own "Immigrant Song," with guitars that chug menacingly and lyrics that run the gamut from fever dream meditations on redhead senoritas to pointed political statements ("Why don't you kick yourself out/You're an immigrant too"). "Little Cream Soda" is also outstanding, pairing ranting, spoken-word verses with grinding surf-metal guitars that make it one of the Stripes' heaviest songs. However, the boldest excursion might be "Conquest," which turns Patti Page's '50s-era battle of the sexes into a garage rock bullfight, complete with dramatic mariachi brass, flamenco rhythms, backing vocals that would do Ennio Morricone proud, and dueling guitar and trumpet solos that capture the band's love of drama. As fantastic as Icky Thump's rockers are, its breathers are just as important. Though the Celtic detour that makes up Thump's heart feels out of place initially, "Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn" is indeed a sweet and genuine sounding homage to Scottish folk, bagpipes and all (and could also be a nod to the Rolling Stones' flirtation with British folk in the mid-'60s). And while its psychedelic counterpart "St. Andrews (This Battle Is in the Air)" doesn't work quite as well, it feels like the kind of quirky tangent that pops up on plenty of vintage albums as a palate cleanser. The Stripes' poppy and vulnerable sides get slightly short shrift on Icky Thump. "You Don't Know What Love Is" is so hooky it could just as easily be a Raconteurs song, though it boasts a guitar solo that stings like lemon juice in a paper cut. "I'm a Martyr for My Love for You" is the album's lone ballad, and while its melody is beautiful, it may be the album's weakest track. And though Icky Thump's track listing might be slightly front-loaded, the Stripes uphold their tradition of ending their albums on a playful note with the wonderful "Effect and Cause," which feels equally indebted to hillbilly wisdom and Mungo Jerry's sly jug-band shuffle. With its fuller sound and relaxed flights of fancy, Icky Thump is a mature, but far from stodgy, album -- and, as is usually the case, it's just great fun to hear the band play.