The Afghan Whigs: Black Love

[6 June 2004]

By Jon Garrett

Hear me now and don’t forget
I’m not the man my actions would suggest
A little boy, I’m tied to you
I fell apart
That’s what I always do.
—“Debonair”, Gentlemen

Greg Dulli has been called many things throughout his career, first as the cocksure frontman for the Afghan Whigs and currently as the captain of his first solo venture, the Twilight Singers. He has been labeled a misanthrope, a misogynist, an arrogant prick. His carnal obsessions, well documented on the Whigs albums, and his pimp-esque attire in concert have certainly cemented the perception that Dulli is the most perfect rock star ever conceived—cold, unfeeling, and completely self-absorbed.

All the allegations might be true if not for Black Love. In 1996, to critical indifference and mostly unfavorable comparisons to its richly praised predecessor, Gentlemen, Greg Dulli & Co. unleashed one of the most brutal and emotionally gnarled documents of a failed relationship ever committed to tape. Black Love probes the depths of the male psyche—vengeance, remorse, self-loathing—and emerges with the stinking detritus of soured romance.

The man who only one album prior proudly proclaimed he had a “dick for a brain” seems to have undergone a transplant. Black Love finds our near-caricature of male id shattered and torn, imploring his partner to explain what went wrong. (“The drug of your smile has gone and left me alone … I need it, sweet baby, please. Won’t you answer the phone? ... I have to ask. I need to know. Was it ever love?”) But Dulli refrains from hanging his lover on the cross. There are scattered references to his own lies and infidelities, his seemingly irresistible indulgences. Dulli is plagued by indecision, as he wonders whether he should come clean or “remain concealed.” Ultimately, Black Love addresses a much deeper issue than Gentlemen ever dared to contemplate: can a perpetually unfaithful man ever truly be in love—is what he feels the sadness that accompanies the loss of someone he cares about or just the sharp pangs of guilt that stem from hurting someone else?

Musically, the Whigs deliver the most potent and stingingly mournful statement of their career. Wisely eschewing the lighter-wavers that bogged down the latter half of Gentlemen, the Whigs match Dulli’s anguished, conflicted lyric sheet with their own stormy turbulence. Rick McCollum, whose soulful purr is sorely missed on the Twilight Singers’ albums, dispenses a seemingly endless array of tangled guitar riffs. John Curley and Paul Buchignani meanwhile restore the sort of biting, bracing rhythm section that the Whigs had shunned in their quest to become undisputed Caucasian kings of Motown. Dulli himself deserves immense credit as well for his role as producer. His skillful incorporation of sound effects, including the screeching locomotive that opens and closes the record, underscores the dark, yearning narrative. More importantly, his decision to allow McCollum’s searing guitar work to take front and center ensures that the album doesn’t sacrifice immediacy even as Dulli slowly rakes himself over the coals.

Black Love’s central question and Dulli’s own emotional discord, not surprisingly, aren’t wholly resolved—although by the album’s second half Dulli is noticeably less ambivalent. On “Bulletproof”, there’s a breakthrough of sorts, as Dulli puts aside the anger, regret, and lust: “Love I can’t hide / But it’s been easier since I said it now.” Indeed, the admission seems to set the tone for the album’s remainder. Further distancing himself from the brash antagonism of Gentlemen, Dulli turns his torment inward, his pain no longer manifesting itself in the uncontrollable urge to lash out or exact revenge. There’s a deep, abiding sadness that carries through the final three tracks, reaching a fever pitch on “Faded”. Dulli transforms himself into a classic balladeer, taking to the piano as he begs the lord to “lift him out of the night.” Here, the Whigs’ fascination with soul serves them well. Conspicuously lacking in the band’s trademark condensed rage, Dulli’s urgent pleas are carried up toward the heavens by a church organ and McCollum’s dramatic crescendos. It’s Dulli’s spiritual hymn of sorts, his prayer for God to wash away his sins and give him solace.

Ultimately, in keeping with the thematic thrust of “Faded”, Black Love is as much about redemption, making peace with love, as it is about the pain of doomed relationships or lingering regrets. And in that sense, Black Love provides some sense of closure even though Dulli remains battered and beaten in the messy aftermath. As the guitars slowly die away and the train leaves the station, one gets the feeling that Dulli is still waiting on an epiphany. But beneath the sadness is a glimmer of hope. He hasn’t come to terms with his emotions quite yet, but Dulli, somewhere over the course of the album, has transformed into a sympathetic character—demonstrating a capacity to change, daring to be human and learn from his poisonous relationship. Perhaps he’s not the shell of a man his actions would suggest.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/afghanwhigs-blacklovemft/