Barring some major misstep -- like releasing an album of gamelan-styled Monkees covers -- the White Stripes' followup to White Blood Cells was the preordained album of the year, whichever year it happened to come out. So now that Elephant is here, it seems oddly purposeless to quibble with this good, probably great record, which is possibly the insta-classic everyone was anticipating.
Nevertheless, here goes. Among the charms of Jack and Meg's prior releases was a certain Peter Pan quality, a forever-young insouciance that showed up as spartan naïveté or hyperactivity or brattish gall. Elephant, on the other hand, is all "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground," dense and bottom-heavy. Even airier tracks, such as Meg's song "In the Cold Cold Night" and the Burt Bacharach cover "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself," are something short of breezy, shorn of the country twang that added another color to the Stripes' limited musical palette. Closer "It's True That We Love One Another" is the exception proving the rule: a rush of silly delight that by its very presence highlights the very grown-up feel of what comes before it.
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That said, those grown-up tracks are adult in the best possible way -- unrelenting and utterly assured. Elephant is a rock rant without qualification or apology. Where earlier Stripes albums felt like a first crush, all sweet dazzle and swoon, this one is more like musical true love: deep, often painful, abiding, necessary.