While there’s still a large debate going on about whether rock is dead, it’s not controversial to say one of the last true rock movements was the garage-rock revival of the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Bands like the Hives, the Strokes, and of course, the White Stripes, all injected the genre with energy it hadn’t seen in quite a while; something that it needed after the departure of grunge and Nirvana. Within this movement were way more bands than one could mention, but these three are specifically good examples, due to their unique takes on similar trends. The Hives joined the punk side; the Strokes took a more pop-esque, Beatles approach; and finally, the White Stripes pumped out southern-inspired, blues-rock. The latter of the three, discussed here, has always focused on raw, basic production, and strong songwriting.
When most people think of the White Stripes, it seems many immediately jump onto Elephant (2003), rather than White Blood Cells (2001), and no one can blame them. With an opener like “Seven Nation Army;” the millennial and Gen Z equivalent of “We Will Rock You;” it’s hard not to be tunnel-visioned on that release. Similarly, “Hardest Button to Button” is no doubt a banger in its own right. However, when looking at the White Stripes’ discography, in many ways, White Blood Cells is their most important record, as it was their largest step in production quality, and eventually shot them into the spotlight.
As their third album in three years, Jack and Meg White refined themselves incredibly quickly, from their self-titled debut, to their sophomore improvement, all the way to this; their huge commercial success. Each of their six records is minimalistic in its own way, but White Blood Cells was the first record that saw them expanding from only Jack’s harsh guitar-playing and Meg’s drumming. The basis for each track is still grounded in those two elements, but the record maintains a strong sonic diversity, so no track feels similar to another. The intense, distorted guitars of “Aluminum,” “I Can’t Wait,” and even “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground,” are counteracted by the sweet and subtle “We’re Going To Be Friends,” and “Hotel Yorba.” And despite its lack of soft touches, “Little Room” is the first ever interlude track used on any of their studio albums, at a whopping fifty seconds. So, unlike either of their first two releases, there’s an up-and-down flow to this record that forever keeps it interesting.
But the entrance of more acoustic, wholesome tracks isn’t the only difference between this, and their previous work. One of their more well-known cuts, “Fell In Love With A Girl,” comes with enough horsepower to pull a freight train by itself. The White Stripes aren’t lacking in loud music to choose from, but nothing else has come close to its punk energy. It sounds like it should’ve come out alongside the Sex Pistols in the late ‘70s. Finally, the piano-driven closer, “This Protector,” tells the standard White Stripes sound to shove off, and instead, it focuses on Jack’s singing (something unrelated to any of their strengths, but in this case, it works as an emotional and effective end piece).
Of course, this record’s significance doesn’t come directly from its additional features and sounds. It also shows their past sounds’ development, and improvement on certain aspects as simple as production quality and individual performance. While these impressive, grandiose tales like “The Union Forever” had found themselves on prior records (for example, “Death Letter”), the fact that it doesn’t sound like it was recorded in a basement helps its effectiveness quite a lot. Some old White Stripes fans may not appreciate the edge being taken off of their signature sound, but it makes it way more listenable in the context of an entire record. And the rough, ominous, ascending guitar part on that specific song is much more variant than the relatively simplistic pieces from past recordings.
At the end of everything, though, Jack’s songwriting and storytelling steals the show on this record. His ability to spin narratives and catchy choruses together has always been the shining light of the White Stripes, and here it’s at its peak. The aforementioned “We’re Going To Be Friends,” is the perfect example of this. The childlike perspective finds itself accompanied by a beautiful, lively guitar, carrying itself purely off of its lyricism. And when you combine that genius writing with the gorgeous, grungy guitar playing on tracks like “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground,” it’s hard not to create a masterpiece.
As a whole, White Blood Cells still stands as one of the greatest records from the White Stripes’ discography; up there with Elephant. There isn’t a piece from this record that feels unnecessary, despite its sixteen-song tracklist. It manages to contain itself in the minimalism of the White Stripes, while jumping a few feet ahead in production, instrumentation, and songwriting to step it above their previous work. It’s no surprise that it holds onto several of their more famous songs. And it’s still amazing that they went from The White Stripes (1999) to White Blood Cells in only two years.