First let me talk about the two steps back. I'll be honest that I have not been looking forward to writing about this song, not because I dislike it, it's a fine song, but because lyrically it's... well let's not beat around the bush, the song is Jack White shouting out French street names in Detroit. I don't really think this does the song any kind of disservice but it raises question about Jack's confidence as a songwriter. That's the two steps back I'm talking about. If you look at White Stripes set lists from 1997 to 1999 they had plenty of songs that contained much more lyrical substance than Lafayette Blues so it's a bit perplexing why this odd little jam was released as their second single. If I was to speculate, and I will, I'd presume the song has two possible origins. One is that in the early days of rehearsal Jack & Meg stumbled upon a nifty little tune to play together. Not having lyrics at the time Jack just started listing all the French street names he knew and he like the sound so much he never rewrote actual lyrics. That's one possibility, another is that it was a musical piece of minimalist art with Detroit as it's stimulus. That sounds extraordinarily pretentious and unlikely but if you think of the bands appreciation for the Dutch minimalist movement this possible origin almost has some weight. What further supports the idea that there's more to this song than just a categorical listing of streets is that it is frequently introduced at White Stripes' concerts, something rarely granted to songs, however what it's about changes from time to time (for an interesting intro listen to the 4th Street Fair performance). In the end I could speculate forever about the cause behind this song but unless Jack White writes an annotated lyrics book I'll never know (unless there has been an interview mentioning this songs creation, if so correct me and shoot me a link). The thing is that Jack always said he worried about the state of song craftsmanship in the garage scene so releasing this song as the second single, particularly when backed by the beautiful Sugar Never Tasted So Good, can be seen as a bit counterintuitive.
On the other hand the actual sound of the song is a good precursor for the general production of their first album. Let's Shake Hands basically captured a live performance and while Look Me Over Closely may have had a piano overdub but it was still pretty basic in it's engineering. Those recordings sound pretty untouchable to me but a definitive studio sound for The White Stripes needed to be found and with Lafayette Blues they found it, or at least partially uncovered it. The result is an absolutely ferocious recording that plays up Meg's drumming, turning it into a thumping energy that sounds like a million doors closing. It sounds like John Bonham caring about nothing but driving the song along to a steady but strong pulse. The guitar is likewise thickened out and if you've seen the cash-in documentary on The White Stripes Candy Colored Blues than you'd know that to give a weight to their performances they were heavily EQd. All this studio thickening may seem to go against the bands ethos but I think it was essential in establishing their records as something that were well crafted. Another interesting aspect of the song is Jack's voice. While he hasn't been ignoring his higher notes up to this point, it's now that he debuts his strong command of his voice which places his singing in a constantly high register. The way he sings the entire song an octave above the average male vocal line makes you think of a falsetto but it has too much substance for that and to be honest I'm not sure how he does it. This singing is now heard in about every second White Stripes song (although it's never quite achieved live), used most noticeably in Blue Orchid, but it's origins lie here. So aurally Lafayette Blues does break some ground but you have to wonder if it would sound better using any other song.
I still listen to Lafayette Blues and I still enjoy it but I hardly think many people can claim it as their favorite. It's very important in terms of the bands development but in this respect it's more of a stepping stone than a breakthrough. It can only really get better from here and while The White Stripes may never have surpassed their first single I think it's fair to say they surpassed the second.