Photo: Chris Cuffaro

The Afghan Whigs: In Spades

On their second reunion album, the Afghan Whigs craft a layered exploration of the fluid nature of memory and how experiences shape us as individuals.
The Afghan Whigs
In Spades
Sub Pop

“Memory believes before knowing remembers,” William Faulkner wrote in Light in August, describing the fluidity of experience and its role in shaping the individuals we become. It’s a theme permeating In Spades, the Afghan Whigs’ second post-reunion album. With frontman-songwriter Greg Dulli acting as the guide, the band deftly uses its inimitable noir aesthetic to craft a nocturnal trek into the subconscious. Not that this is sonically close to dream pop, but there is a particular dream-like quality to the proceedings. Perhaps it’s more apt to say its concept is to serve as a hypnotherapist, regressing you into the darkest corners of your vague memories. In line with this is an undercurrent of occultism, with references to demons, divination, satyrs, and transcendence abounding. Even before hitting play, the cover art heralds the mystic surrealism in store with its image of a shrouded devil towering above Egyptian pyramids.

What’s most striking is how unlike the record sounds from prior Afghan Whigs releases. Yes, the hallmarks remain: the dark veneer, John Curley’s sinuous yet anchoring basslines, the searing guitars augmented by soul/R&B inflections, and Dulli’s psychopomp wordplay (see “Don’t you cum when they come for me” in “Arabian Heights” and “I’m so far inside you now / I am in your silhouette” in “Demon in Profile”). That said, there is a new experimentation showing the band isn’t content to regurgitate the past or conform to preconceptions. Dulli often pushes his vocals to the limits, going from a rich baritone to a venomous falsetto, while the percussion is at its hardest hitting, courtesy drummer Patrick Keeler. The horn sections are at their most prominent since the band’s premature swan song 1965, adding to the moody evocations.

Simulating the protean and dicey nature of mining memories, the songs frequently take unexpected deviations, largely forfeiting traditional rock song structure for more intricate compositions. The arrangements dilate then constrict, build grandiosely before plummeting into some netherworld. They lead you in one direction before abruptly veering you to an unforeseen destination. As such, the record is more of a slower burn than predecessor Do to the Beast, which had the twofold task of shaking off the dust and silencing detractors. Foregoing that album’s immediacy, In Spades takes its time to peel the layers and reveal its gems with successive spins.

The stylistic development is clear from the first notes of opener “Birdland”. Unfurling with sirens’ cooing, the drone of layered Mellotrons and harmoniums mixes with Rick Nelson’s seesawing violin and undulating cello to punctuate Dulli’s delivery, in which he impressionistically recalls himself as a child. Calling to mind Nico’s The Marble Index in its unnerving austerity, it’s a majestic start to the ceremony, the tune marking the descent into the memory’s haze. It’s on second cut “Arabian Heights” that the dream’s tenuous foundation falls out from under you, becoming a ride you’re strapped into rather than in control of. Skittering guitars rise up from a fissure in the ground and a relentless rhythm pounds as Dulli alternates between a smoky whisper in the verses and a deranged howl in the refrain. It rages like a forest fire, the guitar interplay of Dulli, Jon Skibic, and Dave Rosser offering contrasting winds in the conflagration.

“Demon in Profile”, the lead single, is the most old-school sounding track. A seduction anthem built around an ominous piano, it finds Dulli assuming a role by turns predatory and sympathetic, the hook being him belting “All over your body” with different lines completing the couplet. Somehow, it’s able to feel both tightly constructed and loose, marking the first appearance of the brass section. On its heels is “Toy Automatic”, opening with a tribal-industrial drum pattern paired with gospel-sounding synths. The minimal lyrics allow Dulli to deliver one of his most serrated vocals takes, a swirling piano melody at once disorienting and comforting. As it progresses, Rick Nelson’s emotive strings rise to the fore. It reaches an apotheosis when the New Orleans-style horns bubble up and overwhelm in a cinematic sprawl.

The album takes a subdued direction at its midpoint with “Oriole”. Beginning with a metronomic acoustic chug teased with vibraphone plings, it lures you into the darkness of confronting regret. As Dulli coos, Curley’s bass comes in at about the one-minute mark and surges things forward with menace before Nelson’s strings subtly slice through and give the tune a floating sensation. In the final act, Dulli grows unhinged before a distorted guitar frenzy, screaming his desire to find someone he let go of in a previous life. There’s a sense of liberation that comes with Dulli’s resolve, of breaking the past’s shackles for the future’s freedom. That theme runs into “Copernicus”, which features the most dramatic shift in one song, almost to the point of being two numbers spliced together. The first half features a salvo of aural savagery, with brutal percussion and a talkbox effect matching the lyrics’ desperate fatalism. As the tension ratchets up, it suddenly breaks and gives way to a diurnal catharsis. With a hopeful sentiment, Dulli describes a woman venturing to California, more apt to inflict apocalyptic ruin on another than fall prey to it herself. Though the lyrics may not indicate it, the number ends on a flashing impression of optimism.

The sojourn winds deeper in “The Spell”, the electric piano and violins imparting a frisson moment. Dulli’s wounded falsetto adds to it with a certain pathos, yearning for redemption. A hedonistic vibe takes over in “Light as a Feather” thanks to some funky guitar and samples of blowing wind whirling about. Dulli’s at his most devil-may-care, repeating with gusto that he’s got nothing to lose. Afterwards, there’s the comedown of “I Got Lost”, the first of what amounts to a two-part closing suite. From a haunting piano cadence, it swells into a near-waltz when the drums and strings arrive. A hard-to-define Memphis sultriness pervades as Dulli sings of emotional indecisiveness, offering one of his patented cocky-meets-self-lacerating couplets in “Maybe I’m two-faced / Maybe you’re three”. After winding up, it comes full circle and slowly tempers itself to a fade out. On closer “Into the Floor”, the listener reaches the nadir of the hypnosis experiment, greeted by a grey sky laced with impending doom. With a mid-tempo lurch, its percussion crashes like waves on a rocky shore, Dulli’s vocals lacerating as he screams “Is it late or is it yet to come? / Will it wait or burn into the sun?” Despite its initial dourness, it concludes with the protagonist coming out of the trance to a summer breeze and the thunderheads parting.

It’s an ambiguous conclusion for In Spades. The narrator — if we indulge in the not essential but enriching idea that there is indeed one protagonist throughout the ten songs — is left to contend with whether or not the foray into the subconscious was worth it. Will the cultivated memories free him for the future or mire him to the past? Ultimately, it’s a question that transcends the record and is for the listener to grapple with as well. The masterful way this quandary is presented throughout In Spades naturally invites repeated listens and will stand as one of the Afghan Whigs’ finest and most ambitious works.

RATING 8 / 10