In the 13 years since The Afghan Whigs disbanded - their hole in alternative rock largely filled by The Twilight Singers - Greg Dulli has established himself as the finest songwriter to survive the Great Grunge Feeding Frenzy. Where other stars became bloated, boring, indulgent (and, of course, dead) Dulli kept honing his craft. The cruel cliché about grunge was that it represented a desperate adolescent plea for attention in an age of divorce/therapy/medication for all; the distorted squawl of a Prozac Nation that had no rights left to fight for, except the right to complain.
Superficially, the Whigs fit right in with much the same sound and fury that signified a violent rejection of Eighties gloss and trite celebration of prosperity. What set them apart though was an interrogation of masculinity that went beyond Cobain and Vedder’s Oedipal rage (railing against wicked stepfathers and trying to crawl back to mother). Like The Bad Seeds rising from the ashes of The Birthday Party, the Whigs became the archetypal Men in Black (Suits), years before Interpol or The National, but also sharing bar-space with The Hold Steady, who may have aligned themselves more with Springsteen’s blue-collar rock, but shared a lyrical preoccupation with the demi-monde of bar-flies and addicts as a kind of purgatory. Until those other bands came along, the Whigs often seemed like U2's evil twins: the anthemic and darkly majestic soul/gospel/R&B tinged rock band who signed a pact with the Devil, and were rewarded with cult-status rather than getting to hang out with George Bush Jr or telephone the Pope - perhaps a better deal. (Anti-Christian themes aside, it was Dulli who indirectly led me to appreciate Bono, who shares his habit of singing beyond his natural range, even if that means breaking into a wolfish howl or rasp; consequently conveying far more than if he'd hit those notes reserved for opera divas and gospel choristers - or, indeed, spurned them with a punk sneer.)
Do to the Beast announces the resurrection of the Whigs with 'Parked Outside', the blunt hacking of its riff more savage than anything since 1992's Congregation . Back then, the Whigs were definitive grunge: dirty guitars; long hair; fights onstage... and off (hence Greg Dulli’s NME cover with a black eye, supposedly from defending the honour of a lady). Within a few years, they’d distinguished themselves by figuring out how to integrate the wah-wah guitar and string glissandos of Seventies R&B into abrasive indie-rock. Sure, they sounded like they’d been watching a lot of Blaxploitation movies, but the music was less in the service of gangster posturing or a fetishization of retro cool than it was the logical soundtrack to an exploration of desire, temptation, addiction, and redemption. In a rapid gear change, second track 'Matamoros' enacts the moment they soared away from their plaid-clad peers, although it’s not a step backward (to 1996’s classic Black Love), because the programmed beats between the live drums, here, sound like detonations.
'It Kills' (with its harrowing lyric “to see you in love with another”) builds from a tense piano line to a storm of guitars, glides along a plateau with pizzicato strings that feel like the first sight of stars on reaching orbit, before gospel vocals swoop in, with all the uninhibited ecstasy of 'Any Colour You Like'. (Live, Dulli’s segued into 'Comfortably Numb' before, so the echoes of Pink Floyd in their space-rock phase shouldn’t be a huge surprise.)
Changing direction again for track four, comeback single 'Algiers' manages to go places the Whigs never went before while being exactly where they were bound to go eventually: after the James Ellroy-influenced noir of the later albums (Gentlemen, Black Love, 1965, Blackberry Belle, Powder Burns), a homage to spaghetti Westerns makes perfect sense (making this his Fistful of Dollars or Il Mariachi).
A few tracks serve as a reminder that the sound of the Whigs never really went away: it just evolved into Twilight Singers - soulful vocals and programmed beats came to the fore, with a sharper contrast between the smooth numbers and the wall-of-guitars. Two of the best tracks here, 'Can Rova' and (album-closer) 'These Sticks', sound like nothing the Whigs ever did but also seem to point towards the next evolution of Twilight Singers. Both are played against a deep velvet backdrop that could be the whole universe; flutters of brass blend into the ambient drones, and the crooned vocals and delicate strokes of guitar rise to a controlled climax.
It’d be damning with faint praise to say that Do to the Beast is a masterful record from a songwriter entering his third decade, and inaccurate to call this a comeback from Dulli. It's his bandmates who've come back - and what this means is that the counterpoint that always made Dulli's songwriting so rich is slightly more guitar-led. There isn’t a bad album in the Whigs / Twilight Singers / Gutter Twins back-catalogue but Do to the Beast manages to be at once more varied in style and more consistent in quality than any of its predecessors.In the era of Don't Look Back concerts and ever-proliferating twentieth anniversary reissues, this is the proof it's possible to burn on without dying or fading away.
8Alexander Tudor's Score