Greg Dulli still got a few surprises up his ragged sleeves.
May 26, 2017 | by Jocelyn Hoppa
The Afghan Whigs
After a solid career existing almost squarely within the ‘90s, the Afghan Whigs returned in 2012 for a well-received reunion tour that led to Greg Dulli and original bassist John Curley putting out a whole new beast of a record in 2014, appropriately titled Do to the Beast. This album did not disappoint, even if seeing them live on that particular tour left me pretty confused.
I’ve seen Dulli perform a few times, once with a cigarette ashtray built into his mic stand. Since the raw power of the band’s 1990 Up in It — out of the gates with “Retarded” and “White Trash Party” Dulli’s vocal chords weather a good shredding — it’s not a stretch to say it often feels as though you’re pulling for him to hit the notes. On In Spades, it’s true, Dulli’s voice may not be what it once was, but it doesn’t hold the record back nearly as much as one might think upon first spin. A little more worn and wispy, a little less predictable, but definitely not verging on the gravel-road-for-a-throat territory that Dylan, Cohen, and Waits all gracefully aged into. The only track you’ll be likely to skip repeatedly is “The Spell,” due to Dulli singing “Freee-eeee-eee the light,” at the pitch of Psycho’s stabbing-scene sound effects, more of a stylistic misstep than any lack of singing ability. In plenty of past Whigs’ songs — “Fountain and Fairfax,” “Gentleman,” and “The Temple” — Dulli can take a tune off the grid and still achieve a safe landing. But here on “The Spell” it’s just grating, and mars an otherwise beautifully composed song.
The conditions which In Spades, the band’s eighth album, was written under definitely fuel all the laments therein. Dulli stated that these songs were written during a period of “the most peculiar upheavals in history,” mentioning how profoundly he was affected by the deaths of so many icons.“ Prince’s passing perhaps affected me the most,” Dulli said. “He was my North Star. Watching him upped my quality control, and opened my eyes to absolute joy and necessity of self-evolution.”
There’s almost no point in taking the Whigs’ lyrics to task. They slayed in the ‘90s and they slay now; “Taste your fear / They rely on volunteers,” from “Arabian Nights” nails that vampire shit we all know and love Dulli for. “Listen in the distance / As the sky begins to fall / Raining down like crystalline / Apocalypse in thrall” from “Copernicus” plays to our weird fetish-obsessive tendencies, over an obviously approaching doomsday. And from “Oriole,” there’s even more mystic stuff with the will of supernatural entities: “Divination / Cleromancy / Comes the card that / I refused to see.” While the music on In Spades is standard protocol for the band (not that there’s anything standard about their brand of punk-psych-soul), there are moments when it’s clear the Whigs are stretching into some new territory, resulting in some of the new album’s biggest highlights.
“Toy Automatic” is the best track on In Spades, not least because the band excels at capturing a real moment of desolation. Also, the band goes full-on forceful orchestration, unlike anything we’ve really seen from them. There’s no mistaking Dulli’s battered rasp on this track as the proceedings swell with energy, like a giant, magnificent wave that will consume and take the listener under. “Toy Automatic” easily wins space amongst the grand canon of so many classic songs from so many classic Whigs albums. Similarly, In Spades’ final track “Into the Floor” will put you right back into Congregation, having morphed into its own from an onstage jam that concluded said 1992 album’s fan-favorite closer “Miles Iz Ded” every night. Given that this new record is largely about how quickly memories merge with the present, this outro brings that notion all the way home.
It’s impossible to listen to a new Afghan Whigs record without memories cropping up of old favorites, and this trinket for avid, lifelong fans is heartwarming, as much as it’s also a display of unwavering confidence in a very complete body of work. Dulli is a gambling man, and that naughty, cocky self-assurance he possesses “in spades” has allowed him and his band, for better or worse, to soldier on, take high-stakes risks, retread, and turn out another damn fine record.