Just before I set sail in July for the summer tour, a good friend gave me a three CDs to enjoy during the many long drives. One of them was a mix, one was a new album by a widely-acclaimed rock band, and the third was the new Dead Weather release, Sea of Cowards. The first was a fun collection of tunes about New York and other places I've been in the past year. The second made me so comatose I nearly crashed into a Missouri cornfield. And the third--as so many Jack White projects do--made an hourlong stretch of highway disappear in five minutes.
The Difference Between Us"
I don't know who wrote this song. I can guess that the band would say it was a collaborative effort, and I can guess that--when the time came to put it together in the studio--that's probably true. But I can also guess that Jack White wrote this song. I can guess this because "The Difference Between Us," more than any other song on the album, is a White Stripes song. It's built around a simple four-chord progression that's sexy, infectious, memorable, and a little sinister. It's a simple song structure, more steady and consistent than the album's many restless, multi-section tunes. It toys with the quiet-to-loud/stable-to-chaotic device that the White Stripes have perfected. It's a deceptively simple lyric about a problematic relationship, frustration, obsession, and the prospect of escape.
This is a White Stripes song that doesn't sound like a White Stripes song. If it were a White Stripes song, it would have a basic guitar-and-drums production. The line between verse and refrain would be sharply delineated by that quiet/loud sound. Everything would build around those four imminently catchy chords, emphasizing the pop in their blues-rock aesthetic. Little (if any) time would be wasted on the song's front or back end: the track would likely begin with its four chords and end as abruptly. And Meg's characteristic drumming style would give the song its steady, toe-tapping foundation.
Instead, we have a Dead Weather song. The difference is (mostly) production. This band's vision and aesthetic allow the same songwriter to take a wildly different approach to a basic song structure. Experimental sounds--guitar effects, keyboards, lots of distortion, some unexpected percussive elements, and carefully-orchestrated "noise"--give the song its darker, quirkier tone. With a White Stripes production, you're enjoying a musical experience; here, you're briefly entering a musical world. It's a challenging world, but seductive. The result is perhaps less accessible for casual pop fans, but arguably more interesting.
Most artists find addition by subtraction in their sound; the narrower their focus, the freer they are to work within those parameters. For example, the White Stripes are a blues-based pop-rock band. They write pop songs built around traditional blues structures. Everything about those songs--from their inception, to their arrangement, to their production--is intended for a broad audience. They're fantastic--and hugely popular--pop songs. But when Jack White creates a White Stripes song, he's somewhat limited by those parameters.
But what if he doesn't want to write that type of song? Or what if he wants to experiment a little with a song's production? What if, simply put, he feels like getting really weird? Bands like the Dead Weather, or Them Crooked Vultures, or even Tinted Windows, etc., give great pop songwriters an outlet to try something new. It's a safe zone for experimentation, a way to make new ideas happen--and work--without confusing their established artistic identity. What's so great about the Dead Weather--and "The Difference Between Us"--is that it gives us a window into the full scope of Jack White's prodigious talents. We get to see just how many things he's capable of doing really well, and how many different ways a simple song can affect us in a powerful--and unexpected--way.
It's easy for a White Stripes fan to become really impatient for the next White Stripes album. "Enough side projects already...get back to business." I do it all the time. And someday soon, another White Stripes album will come out and give us what we want. It will recognize, meet--and, I'm sure--exceed our many expectations. But for now, I'm grateful for the songs that don't. I'm glad to enter Jack White's other worlds on their own terms--dark and quirky and manic and strange as they might become--four awesome minutes at a time.