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Review: NME.com

For one who talks so much about honesty, Jack White is a difficult man to trust. When last we hear him on 'Elephant' , he is hanging out on what sounds like Lee Hazlewood 's porch, but is actually Toerag Studios in Hackney , engaged in a giggly menage a trois with Holly Golightly and his beloved sister Meg . Holly is pushy, loving Jack "like a little brother" . Meg opines, "Jack really bugs me" . Jack is cagey, but eventually succumbs. "Well Holly I love you too," he admits, "But there's just so much that I don't know about you."

And just so much, Jack , that we don't know about you. Even after 'It's True That We Love One Another' , Track 14 of the fourth White Stripes album, all remains deliriously unclear in the world of Jack and Meg White . Here are devious confusions between romantic and maternal love, a neurotic approach to the wiles of women, numerology, infantilism and, not least, some of the most obliteratingly brilliant rock'n'roll of our time.

In other words, business as usual at Camp White Stripe . Improbable success, old marriage certificates in the public domain, the New Rock Revolution - nothing has adversely affected the way they conduct their business. There are cosmetic changes, with longer hair and outfits fit for Grand Ole Opry goths. But, still, they look more suited to a night out in Detroit 's ruins rather than restyled for celebrity.

In the recording studio, too, not much has altered. The location's shifted from Detroit to London , though only the presence of Holly Golightly and Jack brandishing a cricket bat on the cover signal it. 'Elephant' remains the work of champion Luddites, recorded onto eight-track tape using equipment built before 1963 - guitars, Meg 's drums, the odd keyboard. The bristly frequencies that open the album aren't a bass, but Jack 's guitar fed through an octave pedal. Review copies are exclusively vinyl. Jack and Meg still address one another as brother and sister. How sweet. How determined. How treacherous.

Musically honest - as in untainted by those hussies, computers - it may be. But Jack 's definitions are slippery. The White Stripes ' music has always existed in a fabricated reality, defined by Jack in his first NME interview. "I like things as honest as possible," he conceded, "even if sometimes they can only be an imitation of honesty."

If The White Stripes hadn't become superstars, 'Elephant' would probably sound pretty much like this. It stretches their musical parameters without betraying the tenets of rawness and immediacy. It sounds massive, but intimate: between Jack 's slide runs, you can virtually hear the air moving round the studio. And it reminds us that, of all the bands we've embraced from Detroit and beyond in the two years since 'White Blood Cells' , none can match the depth of The White Stripes .

So from the start, 'Elephant' is breathtaking. 'Seven Nation Army' begins with that faked bass, heartbeat drum, and Jack snarling through a distorted mic. The one obvious diatribe against fame, it finds him paranoid, hemmed in by intrusive questions, and pondering a move to a Wichita farm. Confusion remains his most effective security blanket. The brother and sister legend still diverts attention from when he really exposes himself, and it's now augmented by a recurring smudge between sexual and motherly love. 'The Air Near My Fingers' is typical, painting Jack as chronically nervous of a girl, longing for the security of his mom.

Is this Jack White at his most truthful? As a man unnerved and bewildered by women, who yearns for the certainties of childhood? He'd certainly like us to think so, although the attentions of Marcie Bolen may suggest different. 'Elephant' is full of songs that sound like their subject is sex and read like it's actually inadequacy. 'Hypnotize' - a belting evolution of 'Fell In Love With A Girl' - sees Jack trying desperately to control a woman, before he collapses into meek chivalry and pleads, "I want to hold your little hand if I can be so bold." On 'I Want To Be The Boy' , all his attempts at courtly dating rituals end in failure. "It feels like everything I say is a lie," he mopes, pointedly.

If only girls behaved the way he wanted them to. 'There's No Home For You Here' finds him so frustrated with yet another volatile woman that the trivia of their affair becomes despicable. At times, this stereotyping of women becomes faintly unsavoury. But it smells like fiction, especially when the sentiments come couched in such histrionic music. 'There's No Home. . .' takes grisly instrospection and the tune of 'Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground' and makes vast melodrama out of them, with multi-tracked choral howls, theatrical pauses and the kind of shrill, compressed guitar solos that pockmark the whole album.

Within his valve-driven little universe, Jack White is an extravagant drama queen. Surpassing 'Jolene' , on Bacharach & David 's 'I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself' he replaces Dusty Springfield 's forlorn grandeur with spluttery exasperation. But when he gives Meg a song to sing, 'Cold, Cold Night' is unambiguous in its carnality, a calm come-on pitched somewhere between Brenda Lee and Moe Tucker . Perhaps all those apparent flaws of fickleness and duplicity lie in the minds of men, not women.

It's easy to get lost in the vivid, unstable emotional tangle of 'Elephant' . But consistently, the brilliance of the music acts as a compass. When Jack bitterly resolves to study the rules of attraction on 'Black Math' , he does so to juddering garage punk that recasts 'Let's Build A Home' in corroded metal. When he practices more dark algebra by comparing his status as his girl's "third man" to that as his mother's "seventh son" on 'Ball And Biscuit' , he streamlines the epic crunch of Led Zeppelin in the album's most overt nod to the blues.

That said, the strongest influences on 'Elephant' are the three albums which preceded it. But it's a heavier one than they've made before, less immediately pop-friendly than 'De Stijl' , especially, and with a nasty undercurrent that battles for prominence with Jack 's romantic anxieties. He's a fabulist and a showman. But he can also voice sweetness and torment with an intensity that most conventionally emotional songwriters would kill for. Critically, he can make you believe in his songs, at the same time as you don't believe a word of them. This, perhaps, is what great songwriters do.

And always, there's the implication that he can do more. Right now, the eloquence, barbarism, tenderness and sweat-drenched vitality of 'Elephant' make it the most fully-realised White Stripes album yet. All the excitement we want from rock'n'roll is here, and miraculously few of the cliches. But there's a sense, too, that Jack White is still grappling with adolescence: explicitly in his lyrics; metaphorically in the astonishing, still rudimentary punch of the music. The prospect of his finally reaching adulthood - with or without Meg - is explosive, and not a little terrifying.

John Mulvey

Rating: 9