The complex urban chemistry of Detroit has produced some of this country's most enduring popular music. Its fabled industrial past attracted generations of laborers, particularly blacks and hillbillies from the south, in search of the American dream. More recently, the Motor City's overwhelming troubles have marked its inhabitants with a tough determination and an indefatigable spirit. Detroit artists have a history of channeling the city's unique energy into groundbreaking records -- notably Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and Stevie Wonder's Music Of My Mind.
Nowhere are the distinctions between black and white music more blurred than in Detroit. Just as Berry Gordy polished black R&B to create "the sound of young America" (which of course meant soul music for white kids), so the Motown soul, the gritty blues of John Lee Hooker and the bump of Parliament/Funkadelic had an influence on every Detroit rocker from the MC5 to Bob Seger to Kid Rock to Eminem.
On their fifth release, Get Behind Me Satan, the White Stripes have created a masterful work that pays homage to, and stakes a claim in, Detroit's rich musical heritage. Let's call it Jack White's work, since he wrote, produced and mixed everything here, and played a wide variety of instruments, blowing wide open the duo's trademark but limiting primitive guitar-drum sound. This is one of those rare records, like the Clash's London Calling, that completely transcends its supposed genre and the sounds of its time.
The thirteen-song disc kicks off with "Blue Orchid", a blast of pure adrenaline with White singing in an exaggerated falsetto that recalls Wayne Kramer's turn on "Ramblin' Rose", the opening cut on the MC5's 1969 debut Kick Out The Jams. From there, the White Stripes fearlessly fly into new territory with one surprise after another. Highlights include two piano-heavy rock 'n' soul songs, the insanely catchy "My Doorbell" and "The Denial Twist", both recalling the punch of the Temptations' classic "I Can't Get Next To You". Equally effective are the bluegrass hoedown "Little Ghosts", the bongo-dominated folk song "As Ugly As I Seem", and an oddly gripping tune called "The Nurse" featuring marimbas and maracas.
The two best songs here are ballads: "Forever For Her (Is Over For Me)" and the exclamation-point album-closer, a piano-only waltz titled "I'm Lonely (But I Ain't That Lonely Yet"). The former features a pleading soul vocal star turn reminiscent of Stones gems "Wild Horses" and "Ruby Tuesday", while the finale shows White in a self-deprecating, over-the-top bravado that somehow manages to come off as both sincere and a bit of a good-natured goof.
Despite the bongos, marimbas, and ballads, there is nothing soft about this record, and the few primitive guitar-drums songs ("White Orchid", "Instinct Blues", "Red Rain") find the band bringing it fast and loud as well as ever. But the true swagger stems from the fearless delivery of so many rich musical departures. There is an urgency that seems to scream a desperation to get out of the comfort zone -- emotionally, physically, and musically.