Bolstered again by the louche and ravaged voice of singer Greg Dulli, the latest from the indie rock icons is delightfully stuffed with romance and rancor.
“Demon in Profile”—
The Afghan WhigsVia
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.
And so, even though the Afghan Whigs’ second post-reunion album after 2014’s Do to the Beast bolsters their current six-piece lineup with a small army of string and horn players, the most resounding instrument we hear throughout emanates from Dulli’s ravaged throat. As ever, Dulli spends the majority of In Spades teetering on that shaky precipice where romance turns to rancor, and pillow talk leads to restraining orders. But like a master genre filmmaker, he’s always got a couple of new tricks up his sleeves to keep us on our toes. “Birdland” honors his tradition for slow-burning, cinematic scene-setters, but rather than gently immerse us into his nocturnal netherworld, we’re pushed right in by staccato shocks of harmonium and operatic vocal gasps, like strobe-lit flickers of an image that take you a few moments to process into a fluid moving picture. “We’re coming alive in the cold,” Dulli declares, like a beast reawakened and ready to do damage once again.
Like its 2014 predecessor, In Spades is closer in scope and spirit to Dulli’s other group, the Twilight Singers, than to the Afghan Whigs’ ’90s-era output—which is to be expected given that this reformed line-up is essentially the Twilight Singers with original Whigs bassist John Curley. The branding is pretty much immaterial at this point; what matters really is that Dulli can still pull off his louche lover-man act with conviction—and surprising poignancy. “Copernicus” comes on like cock-rock with an STD, its ugly fuzz riff and pounding backbeat goading its predatory protagonist into action, but then suddenly at the two-minute mark, the song blossoms into a wistful lament for the one who got away. Taking a different route to a similarly fraught destination, “Toy Automatic” is a survey of a shipwrecked relationship that makes you feel like you’re actually standing alongside Dulli on some wind-battered shoreline.
In Spades clocks in at just 10 songs in 36 minutes, but feels as expansive and substantial as a double-album statement. And that’s thanks in large part to coolly paced, multi-sectional songs like “Arabian Heights” and “Light As a Feather,” where Dulli masterfully ratchets up the tension before unleashing his fevered howl at just the right moment (while reminding us that the Whigs are the rare rock band that can pull liberally from ’70s Blaxploitation funk without sounding like they’re making a jokey porno soundtrack). The album’s dramatic arc is completed by two late-game pleas for redemption—though the melodramatic, string-swept closer “Into the Floor” feels like overcompensating in the wake of the devastating piano confessional “I Got Lost,” Dulli’s best ballad since Black Love’s “Faded.” This is a familiar Dulli mind trick: play the bastard for a whole record, and then elicit our sympathies for being such a hopeless fuck-up. Vicious cycles like these are welcome so long as the records turn out as good as this.