For a while there, the Afghan Whigs were on a roll. After a brief reunion to record a few new songs for a 2007 compilation, frontman Greg Dulli decided it was time to make his band a full-time concern again. Putting his Twilight Singers project on hiatus, a new lineup of the Afghan Whigs signed on with Sub Pop Records to release two new albums, Do to the Beast and In Spades. Not long after In Spades‘ release, guitarist Dave Rosser died of colon cancer.
Whether Rosser’s death halted their momentum or Dulli was already planning on giving the Whigs a break is unknown. The former is a possible explanation, considering Dulli’s 2020 solo album Random Desire was fraught with even more pain and raw emotion than his fans are typically accustomed to. After canceling his tour due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he returned to the drawing board with the Afghan Whigs, recording their next project remotely. With Dulli, guitarist/producer Christopher Thorn, and drummer Patrick Keeler in California, bassist John Curley in Cincinnati, guitarist Jon Skibic in New Jersey, and multi-instrumentalist Rick Nelson in New Orleans, the band’s new lineup got busy assembling ten new songs across the continent while leaving room for collaborators including Susan Marshall, Van Hunt, and Marcy Mays.
The album’s title came from another passed-on musician from Dulli’s circle, the late Mark Lanegan. With Lanegan’s voice appearing on two songs, How Do You Burn? winds up addressing death and loss all over again. But Dulli’s suffering is our gain. How Do You Burn? is another stunning entry for the books, mixing the dark, brash rock from the 1990s midwestern underbelly with the slithering sense of soul that always sets them apart from their contemporaries.
The supercharged single “I’ll Make You See God” was released ahead of the album, letting fans and skeptics know that, despite a five-year gap, the band had not lost its step. Drilling over and over on the root chord like Send-era Wire, “I’ll Make You See God” is the sound of nervous withdrawal. “You make the body wake / You make the body ache,” Dulli calls out like a dying wish as the music pounds its way to the finish line. “The Getaway” and “A Line of Shots”, two other numbers due for the single treatment, prove “I’ll Make You See God” to be no fluke. “The Getaway” dives into the murky angle of R&B that has been Dulli’s stock-in-trade for many years now, and “A Live of Shots” takes a sky-high melody for a ride over a perfectly-timed guitar tremolo. “What’s this? They checked out the alibi / Bitch, I checked in as the reason why / I’m getting closer to the sun.” Think of David Lowery minus the sarcasm, and you get the idea.
Despite it all, most of How Do You Burn? ‘s strongest moments aren’t the singles. The three-chord gallop “Catch a Colt” is one of those moments that can’t help but stand out from the first listen. “Don’t let your money, honey / Steal you,” Dulli coos as a cautionary tale in the verses, saving up his energy for the choruses: “Senses are careening / And my scent has gone below / Now you’ve underestimated / How far that I will go.” It feels like it’s all designed to ratchet up the blood pressure. “Please, Baby, Please”, a song that Dulli feels is his attempt to write “Rainy Night in Georgia”, achieves vulnerability with a stark arrangement thanks to a Fender Rhodes and a hushed atmosphere. “I don’t know why / I follow imaginary / Crumbs only I can see / Locked in a maze of self-taught illusion / Lying next to me.”
It’s a lump in the throat for sure, but it’s not half as dangerous as “Jyja”, a dark waltz that turns circles again and again in the dungeon as Dulli sets to “Look for the evidence / Forget the etiquette / I like to know where I’m going.” The sound of the Dulli/Mays duet coming to full bloom in “Domino and Jimmy”, as grand as it is, is outweighed by the stomping closer “In Flames”, with its pummeling octave guitar figure driving downward.
“I’m as influenced by Arvo Pärt as I am by Sly Stone,” Dulli told PopMatters in 2017. That shouldn’t strike anyone as a surprise. When one band decides to cover TLC, New Order, and the Church, you know that they take music seriously. Dulli’s devotion to chasing down whatever turns him on has never steered him wrong. Has this band ever misstepped? I suppose one could split hairs over why Gentlemen was better than Black Love, but one’s time is better spent getting acquainted with the new stuff. How Do You Burn? may take a few spins before you can differentiate it from other recent Dulli releases, but spooky treasures lie beneath when you take the trouble.