Monday, July 20, 2009

#7 Suzy Lee

I doubt I'm alone when I say that I didn't start with The White Stripes' first album and then move forward, anticipating each release the same way I do now. They were America's best kept secret until White Blood Cells and I didn't begin my fandom until just before the release of Get Behind Me Satan and to my knowledge they're still gathering fans with Icky Thump. What I'm getting at is that often and quite ironically the first LP is often the last to be bought by the fan becoming aquatinted with the band for the first time. That's how it happened for me but because I had all but this album at my disposal (trendy step-father) when I began my Candy Cane Child phase, I had thoroughly immersed myself in their final four before I finally bit the bullet and bought this treasure. While I knew Cannon, Astro, When I Hear My Name and more from their live DVD Under Blackpool Lights the one track that I approached with the most anticipation was Suzy Lee. You can probably guess why. The character of Suzy Lee appears throughout the bands mythology on the well known We're Gonna Be Friends and in the dedication of Get Behind Me Satan. Knowing that Jack rarely wasted words I was enchanted by the mystery of who this woman/girl was as I'm sure many fans are. So upon purchasing the self-titled album, while I wasn't naive enough to expect an answer to her identity and you'd be naive in thinking I would even attempt to find an answer hear, I expected a grand song if it was to be named after Jack's elusive muse. I wasn't disappointed.

Seeing as the songs subject occupies a prominent place in his writing coupled with the lyrics I get the feeling that with here Jack was trying to write his definitive love song. The first sign of this is that he even puts a disclaimer at the beginning: "There's a story I would like to tell, the problem is it's one you too well". Jack believes that it is the responsibility of the songwriter to join the family of storytellers that have populated music from the early blues and here he makes his intentions clear. The lyrics never are cliched but they're big bold statements and it very much conveys the feeling that it is attempting to add itself to the great tradition of weight-of-the-world love songs. After all songwriting could not exist if it wasn't for the heartbreak of the girl (or guy) who's gone away. Then again it's better than waking up and finding your baby's dead. What makes the song strong is that Jack never shies away from the enormity of his subject matter, he constantly uses the big L word which in lesser hand often leads to a clumsy mess of a song. The fact that he takes his songs seriously and shows respect for the family of songs he's joining is what makes this a successful love song and is often what keeps Jack a few steps ahead of other songwriters.

As great as these lyrics are though, you can't underestimate the power of the vicious slide guitar with Jack joining forces with his teacher Johnny Walker of the Soledad Brothers. While I don't accept that school of thought that has The White Stripes and any of Jack's bands constantly compared to Led Zeppelin here I can see a real Zep sound coming through. The dark stomp that accompanies the refrain, all throughout would not feel out of place on one of their albums and it becomes even more Jimmy Page-ish when it breaks down into an epic guitar jam. With little overdubbing at this stage in his career Jack is yet to embrace his virtuosity completely but here him and Johnny share a rare six string indulgence. They delicately noodle during the verse and then go for a full throttle duel in the breakdown. This second guitar lends the song some subtlety not seen on the rest of the album, not that it's really needed.

Suzy Lee is a big song. It's got big lyrics. It's got big guitar. And of course it's got big drums but that sure ain't exclusive to this number. If you were to look at any of the more romantically inclined songs from the first two albums it's easy to see why this one became embedded in the bands myth for years to come.

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