Greg Dulli Crafts a Nocturnal Solo Debut of Reflective Triumph with 'Random Desire'
Greg Dulli's Random Desire is striking in its unified exploration of what comes after — years after — a heartbreak. Not a mere collection of 10 songs, it is an album in the classic sense, each track as essential as a chapter in a book or a scene from a movie.
21 February 2020
"Desolation / Come and get it," sings Greg Dulli in the opening lyrics of Random Desire, a devil's come-on only he can sell. The couplet sets the tone for what's to come, a signpost both beckoning you in and warning the faint of heart it's their last chance to turn back. For Random Desire, the debut solo record (of sorts) from the veteran Afghan Whig/Twilight Singer/Gutter Twin, is a soundtrack for pensive late nights alone, raking over regrets, forfeited love, and forsaken chances. Depressing as that may sound, the song cycle isn't one to wallow. On the contrary, it has a reflective victory about it, the kind that comes with years separating you from the painful experiences and the knowledge that while they linger with you, you've survived them. There's a sense of fighting through the haunt of bitter memories of smiling despite the ache.
All the Dulli hallmarks are here — acerbic guitars, beguiling rhythms, soul/R&B-inflected swagger, and austere piano melodies. His voice, always distinctive in its raspy, come-hither coo and lacerated howl, is in top form. It's a bit more frayed by age, but this bolsters his conviction. The persona he's patented across 30-plus years remains authentic, that of a guilt-grappling Casanova dealing in fatalistic romanticism (or is it romantic fatalism?). Yet despite these elements giving longtime fans beacons to cling to, the record is slow to reveal its rewards. Rather, it takes several listens for its strengths to unfurl; its density and richness require repeat listens, each spin capitalizing on the previous. Silken, nocturnal, addictive, smoky, enveloping, and commiserative, it seduces you into its noir world twined between poles of remorse and triumph.
While Random Desire is his first true solo record (not counting 2005's Greg Dulli's Amber Headlights, a compilation of demos originally intended for Twilight Singers' sophomore album), Dulli has had the gravitas and mystique that typically accompany a solo artist for some time. Through lines, both in his lyrical concerns and the nocturnal, sinister-sexy music, connect all his work. While his various bands certainly have their disparities, one can arrange the albums under each name in chronological order, and they're all clearly one songwriter's evolution.
Random Desire, then, is the natural next step in Dulli's continual development and pursuit of his muse. A self-proclaimed private person who lets his art speak for him in a hybrid of confessionalism and impressionism, this may be Dulli's most unveiled work (which says a lot for a guy who has Gentlemen and Powder Burns in his oeuvre). And while the album still sounds like a full-band record — having been recorded with a select cast of some of collaborators — it has the feel of a solo affair, of an artist solitarily trudging through the caverns of his psyche.
"Patomima" kicks things off as a microcosm of the album's duality. Beginning with a menacing bass rumble and Dulli's high-end vocals, it ratchets up with frenzied guitar and galloping drums. Its percussion has a '60s pop-rock vibe, courtesy the double snare hits and handclaps, a tambourine driving the beat. Dulli's husky croon sinuously winds through it all, like it's leading the head of a parade. The song's intensity splits the difference between an ebullient call to arms and a scathing adieu. Successor "Sempre" opens with a chugging acoustic guitar and sentimental piano chords. Before the lyrics arrive, you know you're in for a soul-puncher. "Stoned / But I see you every single night," Dulli opens, chronicling that feeling of an absent lover's apparition still hovering over you. After the initial somber verse, the song detonates into furious fretwork in a moment of catharsis. The song introduces a theme recurrent throughout the record: the consolation the broken-hearted tell themselves that they're now free with a relationship having crumbled, Dulli repeatedly proclaiming he's got no one to hold him back.
The theme continues with "Marry Me", a slow-burning ballad that begins with a delicately plucked acoustic guitar and ghostly backing vocals from Avtar Khalsa. Its sonic sparseness functions like a flashback, pulling you into a painful memory you can't help but compulsively relive and wonder where things went wrong. "Liberated, but I am not free … / Once you're gone, they're gonna bury me / I let you go", Dulli sings at his most plaintive. Freedom has been attained, but at a regrettable cost, giving an ironic bend to the title.
A seamless segue into "The Tide" is accomplished via the sounds of crashing waves, linking the songs in the record's strongest one-two punch. Minor piano notes bubble up behind the surf, a chugging, subtly funky guitar in turn emerging behind them. A grandeur builds, the song speeding up and growing from tension into a dark exuberance, Dulli delivering the album's key line shortly before the drums truly set it off: "I got things to do before I fade away". From there, it's a borderline arena rocker, eventually winding down and fading out to Dulli and a gospel choir of his looped vocals aping the Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)". As a pair, "Marry Me" and "The Tide" is the album's centerpiece.
Dulli pushes his vocals to their limits in the piano-led "Scorpio", which most closely references his soul affinity in a groove reveling in its sexiness. Notably, it foreshadows closer "Slow Pan", literally namechecking it. On the flip side, "It Falls Apart" is still erotic but with a layer of foreboding added. Above a hypnotic piano loop, Dulli's voice is at its sultriest. Like the aural equivalent of a film's panning shot, it has the feel of a predator cruising the night streets.
Similarly, calling to mind an image rife for a movie is "A Ghost". Built around a boozy guitar chug you could hear in a spaghetti western, it conjures the imagery of a dusty saloon scene, Dulli seated in a dim corner playing a supernatural rogue looking to make a deal with some unsuspecting soul. Doc Patt's pedal steel guitar and Rick Nelson's violin solidify this impression, the ringing of a distant bell driving it home.
Partly shot on location — verbiage Dulli often uses in liner notes rather than "recorded in" to convey his albums' cinematic qualities — in New Orleans, the Crescent City's presence saturates the album and imbues its songs with its distinctive allure. This no more apparent than on "Lockless", mixing jazz elements with electronica. A bed of trumpet, saxophone, and trombone mixes with skittery beeps and syncopated beats creating a swaying groove and unabashed splendor. It's also where the album gets its title: "I, the lonely rider, moth to flame / Random desire knows my name."
"Slow Pan", the closing cut, could only be placed at the end. The credits are scrolling, and the lights are coming on. Sparse piano and a shimmering harp evoke the sensation of awakening from a dream, Dulli's falsetto at its highest yet softest. It's brief and fades out to some ambient guitar, the perfect way to wrap the record and a complementary bookend to "Pantomima".
Random Desire is striking in its unified exploration of what comes after — years after — a heartbreak. Not a mere collection of 10 songs, it is an album in the classic sense, each track as essential as a chapter in a book or a scene from a movie. It shows that while the hurt and loss are still there and remain felt, they're like a scar from what could have been a mortal wound. And while Dulli might have sung that he's got things to do before he fades away, Random Desire proves he's neither fading away or burning out any time soon.
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