Release Date: May 5, 2017
Record label: Sub Pop
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Blow me down and call me Dulli, on their second album since reforming and eighth overall these besuited soul-grunge Lotharios have made what might be described as their first post-rock record. Don't get me wrong, these compositions have concise pop-length running times and retain several defining qualities of the Whigs' well-honed style. Greg Dulli's vocals grow only more aching with age as he transitions from cocky young buck to greying Don Juan.
Since 1996 (when I bought The Afghan Whigs' Black Love because I liked the cover), Greg Dulli has been there for me. He's been a guide through self-destructive excess, joyless narcissism, neon-lit misery, ugly celebration and, ultimately, the importance of survival. The Twilight Singers' Blackberry Belle dragged me out of the worst period of my life and, although I can never listen to that album ever again, I remain incredibly grateful.
The warped doo-wop of lead track, "Birdland", named for the avian-themed street names of his childhood neighborhood, begins "I was a child," immediately setting us squarely outside of present time and place. "Birdland" is also one of the most dramatic stylistic anomalies in The Whigs' (and, indeed, Dulli's) oeuvre, portending that In Spades is not a typical Afghan Whigs album. The band's reunion album, 2014's Do To The Beast, featured the band's most accomplished and diverse arrangements in their impressive catalog.
When The Afghan Whigs reunited five years ago, it was anything but a typical cash-grab nostalgia trip; it was more or less a matter of picking up where they left off, considering their exit felt a little premature to begin with. That wasn't due to the usual rock and roll cliches but was rather a matter of geographical distance between band members and exhaustion after settling a legal dispute with their former label. Likewise, their first post-reunion album Do To The Beast, released two years later, felt equally justified and found them less interested in rehashing their glory days and more interested in building off of their sound and rightfully moving forward.
Only a week or so ago one of The Gutter Twins, Mark Lanegan, emerged with a startling new album in the shape of Gargoyle. His partner in drainage Greg Dulli has quickly followed suit, just as you'd expect a twin to do. They might not be working together on their respective albums, but there's a pleasing synchronicity to their reappearance on the musical landscape.
A mastery of soul influences and Greg Dulli's twin lyrical themes of obsessive lust and simmering anger made the Afghan Whigs stand out from the mid-90s alt-rock herd. Their 2014 comeback Do to the Beast - featuring just Dulli and bassist John Curley from the original line-up - was a little underwhelming, but its follow-up finds them rewinding the years more successfully. The bruising Arabian Heights has real swing and swagger, while Toy Automatic and lead single Demon in Profile benefit from more light and shade, and the judicious use of a horn section.
When Greg Dulli and John Curley reformed the Afghan Whigs for their strong 2014 comeback LP, Do to the Beast, fans and critics were quick to point out the group's moody and restrained sound. On their equally terrific follow-up, In Spades, it seems that the Cincinnati six-piece are back in full-retro Whigs mode. Much of the unbridled energy the band exude on LP number eight seems to stem from the fact that In Spades was recorded right in the studio in a full band setting, as tracks like "Arabian Heights" and "Copernicus" play off thudding, driving polyrhythms that once fuelled classic Whigs tracks like "Gentlemen" or Miles Iz Ded.
T hese Cincinatti alt-rockers released their seventh album, Do to the Beast, in 2014. It was their first release in 16 years, and built on the bluesy, soul-flecked sound they had developed over the course of several acclaimed albums in the 80s and 90s. Now their second wave continues with a darker record that frontman Greg Dulli has described as "spooky", centred on themes of death and the uncanny.
Afghan Whigs' latest offering In Spades is just the kind of music you'd expect Greg Dulli and the boys to be producing in 2017, proving the outfit are as complex, contrary, savage, and as glorious as they have ever been. Let's start with that famous contrariness: album opener, Birdland, all brusque hoots and abrupt time signatures makes sure you never forget this is a band whose frame of musical reference takes in Charlie Parker as much as Led Zeppelin. The savagery rears its head on Arabian Heights: this is the perfect combination of Whigs trademarks, a funky as shit bassline, a guitar shredding all hell out of everything around it and Dulli yelling, 'Don't you come with me'; we can't help ourselves, Greg! The tempo switches again for Demon in Profile which recalls Gentlemen's My Curse.
"Memory believes before knowing remembers,” William Faulkner wrote in Light in August, describing the fluidity of experience and its role in shaping the individuals we become. It's a theme permeating In Spades, the Afghan Whigs' second post-reunion album. With frontman-songwriter Greg Dulli acting as the guide, the band deftly uses its inimitable noir aesthetic to craft a nocturnal trek into the subconscious.
Back in the 1990s, the Afghan Whigs were way ahead of the curve on what would become two of the most dominant tropes in 21st-century rock'n'roll: an open embrace of R&B on one hand, and widescreen Springsteen-sized epics on the other. And yet, you'd be hard-pressed to find a band today that actually sounds like the Afghan Whigs. Because no band has a frontman quite like Greg Dulli, who possesses such a distinctively raw rasp of a voice and such a particular lyrical POV, the thought of trying to emulate him is probably why artists don't cover hip-hop songs more often--it feels less like an act of musical homage than intellectual property theft.
No one ever credits them for it, but in the music critic imagination, you can't help but wonder if the present moment of debauched neo-soul would have existed quite this way without the Afghan Whigs. Before the Weeknd's early EPs put his signature on a certain brand of hard drugs, relentless self-loathing and animal sex, there was an album called Gentlemen, and a band with a simultaneous regard for Motown and a willingness to give voice to the male id. One senses the Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli knew this when he took to covering Frank Ocean on the band's reformation, that he had some demon pride in his role as an uncredited forefather of scorched-soul pop.
I once used the phrase "torment and celebration in every step" to describe Greg Dulli's music. Admittedly, "celebration" may seem a strange choice of words given the dark fascinations The Afghan Whigs' frontman has copped to on albums over the years. Still, the word somehow fits. Whether it's the sweeping, elegant build to Dulli menacingly slobbering, "Angel, forever…" on the terrifying "Fountain and Fairfax"; the nocturnal, cinematic environs that Black Love drops listeners in the thick of; or the emphatic powder kegs and sonic trapdoors of a Twilight Singers album, there's an assuredness, a jubilation no matter what deed is about to go down.
With their second album since reuniting in 2012, it's clear that Afghan Whigs leader Greg Dulli has decided to give the band's sound an overhaul that's likely to be permanent. One of the more puzzling things about the Whigs' 2014 comeback LP, Do to the Beast, was that it didn't sound an awful lot like the band's best-known work, and that's once again the case with 2017's follow-up In Spades, though both albums have Dulli and his obsessions written all over them. The songs still dwell on the dark side of the human psyche and the ugly aspects of romantic relationships (a theme Dulli couldn't abandon if he tried), but musically Dulli has taken his fusion of R&B and indie rock and retooled it.
Whether recounting tales as a self-styled lothario or providing sinister depictions of drug addiction and unsteady relationships, Greg Dulli's work has always aimed to provoke. It should come as no surprise, then, that In Spades - The Afghan Whigs' second album since their 2011 re-formation - traverses evocative concepts such as mortality and the supernatural while, naturally, throwing in a bit of trademark sleaze. The band remain focused on the brooding rhythms and haunting melodies established on predecessor Do To The Beast.
The Afghan Whigs' In Spades is way over the top, but in the best possible way. Coming three years after the reunion album Do to the Beast, it poses and preens and struts and swaggers, everything about it larger than life, including the words that Greg Dulli uses to get his louche and occult visions across. It's a big rock record of the sort that you just don't hear much anymore, full of outsized emotions and wall-to-wall sonic textures.