Welcome to Jack and Meg's armageddon...
I was thinking of just putting the song up to listen to and just say that opening line and leave the post at that. But of course that would be cheating and I think there's quite a lot to be said for this song. The cannonball riff (pun very much intended), combined with the John The Revelator interlude, all evoke a truly apocalyptic mood ranging from a personal destruction to one of biblical proportions. Of course once again this deadly storm is only achieved as a result of the ruthlessly unrestrained and unrefined sound that defined them in these years.
As great as it is to talk about the images of destruction that this song conveys I can't get through this without mentioning the fantastic riff that the song revolves around . A disclaimer for this blog: when I discuss a song, it's live incarnations are a part of it's existence so as much as I love this studio recording I have to use the live versions as the greatest evidence of this riffs power. It's like the ace in Jack's sleeve. Just as Dead Leaves/When I Hear My Name announce the concerts arrival and Seven Nation Army draws it to a close, Cannon is the song that breaks the ice. It may seem a tad pedantic to examine it's placement in set lists but there's a basic logic to my observation. The band's concerts are based on Jack's love of the idea of songs simply falling apart and this unstable and unpredictable set structure is what makes them so appealing. However a concert usually begins with a few 'proper' renditions of songs and ends with the same thing (Under Blackpool Lights being a good example) but as great as these songs are they are entrées and desserts with the real meat and potatoes being the craziness of the middle and while finding patterns in White Stripes sets goes against their nature it seems there is a predominant introduction to the main course, and that is.... yup, Cannon.
Is it really hard to see why? The song is built to collapse in on itself. The only sense of stability offered are the brief verses with Meg offering a sense of order to counter Jack's menacing riff but that slowly descends into chaos as Jack rambles the last words bringing this section to a close and then the real chaos can begin. It seems a tad pretentious to say this but, just as Beethoven's fifth is likened to knocking on death's door, Cannon's explosive breakdown really does emulate a bunch of cannon's going off. In fact the entire song sounds like the soundtrack to a battlefield with the verse playing the role of the march, the solo guitar hitting the first notes of the breakdown, declaring first shot and then with Meg's bashing the war becomes a full on assault.... and then Son House comes in? All in all it shows the strengths of the concept of a song collapsing (and it literally sounds like something collapsing) and this is why it has become an essential aspect of the band's set..... and we haven't even gotten to the Son House bit.
The inclusion of traditional blues song John The Revelator (which I attribute to Son House because that's clearly how it came to Jack) strengthens my first two main points about this song. The red, white and black apocalypse I was alluding to before is brought home when Jack adds in a biblical element, dropping the book of revelations into the mix. If the song was so far simulating a war then it's this little excerpt that kicks it over the edge into armageddon. We could argue until the cow's came home about whether this song speaks of an inner-conflict, a man-made struggle or a mythical rapture but it would be a waste of time since the lyrics are so brilliantly vague. All the pieces are there, make what you like of it, that's great songwriting.
The inclusion of John The Revelator also exemplifies the collapse of songs the band does so well. What's interesting about this is that it's the first time it truly happens on record. Before Jack was turning Fell In Love With A Girl into Little Room on Letterman, this was the prototype of a now established formula. However as I said on the Wasting My Time post, all these ideas that were popping up on album one were perfected on later albums which is what I find problematic. With Cannon this is not the case and I still find it a concert highlight and a song I keep coming back to.