So if you’re at all into rock music and tend to keep up with what’s happening, you learned the other day that the White Stripes are officially no more. I say “officially” since they abruptly cancelled their 2007 tour mid-way through, due to Meg White’s acute anxiety problems. For a band that released 6 albums in almost as many years, anything more than a two year gap between recordings would seem to indicate they were done. The release of 2009’s live album seemed one of those gestures made to fans when you know no new music is coming. You held out hope, and rumors swirled that they were returning to the studio in 2011, but deep down you knew it was over.
Well it is over and they’re done. They are and were a favorite of mine, which is why I’m not sad to hear the news.
Sad to see them go? Yes. I never got a chance to see them live and always wanted to, but at the end there’s something you have to respect about an artist who looks at their body of work and says “that’s enough. We did what we wanted, we didn’t compromise, and we left behind something we’re proud of.” They never fell into that trap of churning out music that came more out of duty than real love.
It makes me glad, in a way, that they knew when to leave. Many bands do not. Others seem to fall into that category of dutiful releases, even though the passion (theirs and yours) seems to be gone, or at least not burn as bright as it used to.
REM is one of these bands, for me. From the late 80s well through the 90s they were one of my favorites. I waited with breathless anticipation for each new release, with 1992’s Automatic for The People being the peak. I used to be a fan, and I still like REM, but not like I used to. Their last batch of albums has been okay, but not spectacular. 2008’s Accelerate was solid, but I never even bought 2004’s (reportedly terrible) Around the Sun. They have a new one coming in March – Collapse Into Now, and I probably will grab it too, out of duty more than anything. I still like them, but that flame doesn’t burn quite as bright.
[Addendum: Of course, REM announced they were calling it a day in Fall of 2011, which makes the above paragraph come off as snarky. And ‘Collapse Into Now’ ended up being their best album in 15 years.]
PJ Harvey is another who’s faded for me at least. I loved her through the 90s, and that love climaxed with 2000’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. I saw her perform late that year, and that act seemed to represent the closing chapter. I actually missed her previous White Chalk, but what I’ve heard about her upcoming Let England Shake may bring me back into her orbit.
[Addendum: It did]
And then there’s U2. The 2-part look back at Achtung Baby was surprisingly the most popular entry on this site and I do still consider myself a fan. The day the Stripes announced it was over was the same day U2 manager Paul McGuinnes told a panel at Cannes that a new album was due from the band this May, intriguingly to be produced by Danger Mouse. The lackluster response to 2009’s No Line on the Horizon – an album I actually liked – can be either a good thing or a bad thing. This is a band that loves to be the biggest in the world, and their next album, whenever it comes, will either be a bold success, or a timid failure. I’ll buy it, obviously, but in reflecting on AB, I realized that they will never recapture that era of excitement for me. It’s impossible to do what you did at thirty when you’re pushing fifty, just as it’s impossible to respond to music the way you did in your late teens as you do when in your late (gasp) thirties.
[It should be noted that McGuinnes was blowing smoke — there was no new album in ma. The 20th Anniversary Achtung Baby set, however, comprised nearly 2 albums worth of never before heard material, so win-win]
The other way a band can soldier on is to follow the Pixies example; no new album, just touring, playing to fans, playing the songs we’ve been listening to since they broke up in 1993. We’re glad too, because we know, as they do, that a new pixies album wouldn’t be the same Pixies who recorded Trompe le Monde or Bossanova. It would be the sound of a bunch of forty-somethings soon to be fifty-somethings trying to appeal to the fans they had, and the people they were twenty plus years ago. It’s impossible.
The White Stripes will last and be eternal. Kids who came of age in the early-mid 2000’s will listen to Elephant and White Blood Cells and recall past times and past lives, to the degree people my age will listen to Nevermind or Doolittle and remember when music was the most important thing in our lives. Jack White will form another band – he already has The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, so he’ll be around for a good long time. Meg will enjoy retirement, and probably form the most awesome stitch n’ bitch circle on the face of the planet. Could there be a reunion tour? Unlikely. A reunion show, or special performance ten years down the road? It’s quite possible.
There’ll be more to come from the White Stripes; live recordings and videos, unreleased tracks and merchandise. I’ll be really interested to read a definitive biography of the band too, but in the meantime, there’s those six studio albums and an impressive live one in heavy rotation. I’ll keep listening to the sound of dead leaves and the dirty ground. And so will all of us.