Elephant was recorded in two weeks during April 2002 in London's Toe Rag Studios except for the song "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself", which was recorded at BBC Maida Vale studio. The song "Well It's True That We Love One Another" was recorded in November 2001 at Toe Rag studio. Jack White produced the album with antiquated equipment, including an eight-track tape machine and pre-1960s recording gear. As stated in the liner notes, White deliberately refrained from using computers during Elephant's writing, recording, or production.
The album is a loose concept album, dealing with the "death of the sweetheart" in American culture. Like other White Stripes records, the cover art and liner notes are exclusively in red, white, and black, and has a song with "little" in the title.
The album has been released with at least six different versions of the front cover—different covers for the CD and LP editions in the US, the UK and elsewhere. To give an example, on the US CD edition Meg White is sitting on the left of a circus travel trunk and Jack is sitting on the right holding a cricket bat over the ground, while on the UK CD edition the cricket bat touches the ground and the image is mirrored so that their positions on the amplifier are reversed. The UK vinyl album cover is the same as the US CD but differs in that the color hues are much darker. The cryptic symbolism of the album art includes a skull sitting on the floor in the background, as well as peanuts and peanut shells in the foreground, and on the circus travel trunk appears the mark "III," Jack White's signature. Jack White is also displaying a mano cornuta and looking at a light bulb intensely, while Meg White is barefoot and appears to be crying, with a rope tied around her ankle and leading out of frame. Both have small white ribbons tied to their fingers. On the reverse side of the U.S. edition, all of the number "3"s are in red (disregarding the authorization notes at the bottom).
The US vinyl release has Meg wearing a black dress instead of the usual white dress that appears on all covers. It also has red and white colored vinyl.
In an interview with Q Magazine in 2007, Jack White said, "If you study the picture carefully, Meg and I are elephant ears in a head-on elephant. But it's a side view of an elephant, too, with the tusks leading off either side." He went on to say, "I wanted people to be staring at this album cover and then maybe two years later, having stared at it for the 500th time, to say, 'Hey, it's an elephant!'"
The White Stripes were gaining momentum with their previous three albums and were generally lauded in critical circles. Upon its release, critical response to this album was overwhelmingly positive, and many critics hailed it as one of the defining events of the 2000s garage rock revival.Uncut magazine remarked that "Elephant is where the tabloid phenomenon of summer 2001 prove they are no flash in the pan by making a truly phenomenal record." David Fricke (with Rolling Stone) called it "a work of pulverizing perfection," adding, "It will be one of the best things you hear all year" and Allmusic said the album "overflows with quality". Critics also commented on the development of the band. NME noted that "The eloquence, barbarism, tenderness and sweat-drenched vitality of Elephant make it the most fully-realised White Stripes album yet." PopMatters said the album cemented "their evolution from Blind Willie McTell cover band with a pop sensibility to full-fledged, honest-to-goodness rock 'n' roll gods." The album enjoys a Metacritic rating of 92. Negative critique, though rare, was centered around the "gimmicks" that surround the music, most notably, the White Stripes' insistence on being called siblings. "So maybe it's time to drop the enigmatic charade," Lorraine Ali (with Newsweek) pleaded, although she concluded, "Elephant still sounds great."Robert Christgau gave the album a three-star honorable mention () upon release, but later claimed that he had initially underrated it, and gave it a new grade of A minus.
The album debuted at number one in the United Kingdom and reached number six on the Billboard 200 in the US. The album won Grammys for Best Alternative Album and Best Rock Song ("Seven Nation Army"). In 2003, the album was ranked number 390 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. It was also placed thirty-ninth in Channel 4's list of the 100 Greatest Albums of all time. In December 2003, NME made it their Album of the Year. Recently, Rolling Stone called Elephant the 5th best album of the decade, and Seven Nation Army the 6th best song of the decade.