The Afghan Whigs, In Spades

The Afghan Whigs, <i>In Spades</i>

“That’s funny,” my wife told me earlier this week, “I didn’t know you were an Afghan Whigs fan.” And at first, I was a little affronted. How could she not know that, after all these years? Except that, as I thought about it, I realized that I’d kind of set aside the Cincinnati band for quite a while, possibly even since before my our first kid was born (and yes, that means it’s been more than a decade).

Which is weird, because there was a point in my life, going from 1993 through 1998 or so, where the Afghan Whigs were honestly one of my top five favorite bands in the whole goddamn world. I loved the earlier albums, sure, but it was really 1993’s Gentlemen that did it — that album hit me hard, like a brick to the head. I’m sure I annoyed the shit out of a lot of my friends with that one CD, forcing it upon them unasked-for at every chance I got.

Looking back, I think it was partly because of frontman Greg Dulli’s Gentlemen persona, if not the man himself — now, as a recovering musician and songwriter, I can recognize that those aren’t truly the same thing. His voice on that album was confident and brazen and good with the ladies and full of shit but not giving a shit; essentially, all the things my self-conscious, anxiety-filled late-teenage self was not. Gentlemen was dark, to be sure, but it was also alluring, at least to me.

Years rolled on, though, and I started to see how that allure, that persona, was itself a facade, how there was a whole lot of unhappiness wrapped up in those lyrics. Listening again these days, I’m smiling but shaking my head ruefully, because now I’ve lived some of that, in a way I sure as hell hadn’t back then. I still love the hell out of Gentlemen, but these days I’m viewing it through a very different lens.

When the Afghan Whigs broke up, that was kind of the death knell for my love affair with the band, as well. There’d been the lackluster 1965, which I couldn’t ever get into, and then a couple of years later, poof, that was the end. The band burned out in a fire that seemed pretty goddamn obvious in retrospect. Unconsciously or not, I packed away those albums and moved on with life, finding some of the pain and pleasure Dulli sang about and learning a whole lot of lessons about it all along the way.

Now, though, the band is back in my life, and I’m listening again. I listened to and mostly liked 2014’s Do to the Beast, sure, but it just didn’t grab hold of me, not like I’d hoped it might. It felt like a warmup, like they were getting ready for something, and with new album In Spades, yeah, it seems pretty clear that this was it.

I’ve grown up a lot since ’98 — it’s been almost 20 years, after all — and in a way, it feels like the Whigs have, too. The songs on In Spades are still dark and murky and moody in the best goddamn way, but they’re somber, too, introspective in a way back-in-the-day Dulli and crew couldn’t ever really be, as hard as they tried. They’ve learned their own lessons along the way, fighting addictions and having families and dealing with loss, and it seeps through the songs.

The lyrics here are less certain, less sure of themselves than I think I’ve ever heard before from this band; there’s a sense that they’ve realized they don’t know how everything works, how it should all go, and now they’re fighting to understand. They’re not giving up, no, but they know now that there’s damage the world can do when you least expect it.

Musically, too, they’ve progressed, opening up to sounds that would’ve been entirely out of place on earlier Whigs albums. Opening track “Birdland,” for one is pretty and delicate and surprisingly brief, with an arrangement that owes a lot to more contemporary pop, really, than to old-school soul, R&B, or even rock; there’s a touch of Sia in there, to my ears. “Copernicus,” further on, starts off menacing but then sweeps upwards into gorgeous, uplifting layers of guitar that eventually verge on hazy, overdriven dreampop.

Even “Toy Automatic,” my personal favorite track, brings to mind sadly-departed band Augustines more than anything else, with its atmospheric, moody, epic-sized sweetness; now that I’m thinking about it, though, that may be more a case of the Afghan Whigs influencing Augustines, who incorporated that influence into their sound, and who I’ve listened to a whole lot more these past couple of years. Whoa. It’s like a snake eating its own damn tail…

Other highlights include fast, propulsive, almost New Wave-ish rocker “Arabian Heights,” a sleek chunk of sound that’s determined and sultry at once, with spiraling, slippery-sounding guitars and a vibe that evokes too-late nights out somewhere glittery and shiny and a bit sordid. Then there’s the quiet solemnity of “I Got Lost,” which is all piano, warbling beds of sound, waltzing rhythm, and Dulli’s high-end, fragile vocals, and which is utterly beautiful for it.

I should note before I close, that In Spades comes with its own personal tragedy, in that not long after the album’s release this spring, guitarist Dave Rosser, who’s been with the band since Do to the Beast, passed away.

Knowing that makes the final roar of closer “Into the Floor” feel like an elegy of sorts for Rosser, who played on that track (and every other track but “Copernicus”). It’s an intense, harrowing song about loss and memory, with Dulli howling, “Will it wait / Or burn into the sun? / I’ll remember you always this way,” and every time I listen to it, it hits me hard, right in my soul. Uninentional though it may’ve been at the time, I can’t think of a better tribute.

[The Afghan Whigs are playing 10/26/17 at the Heights Theater, along with Har Mar Superstar.]
(Sub Pop -- 2013 Fourth Avenue, Third Floor, Seattle, WA. 98121; https://www.subpop.com/; The Afghan Whigs -- https://theafghanwhigs.com/; The Afghan Whigs (Facebook) -- https://www.facebook.com/TheAfghanWhigsOfficial/; The Afghan Whigs (Twitter) -- https://twitter.com/theafghanwhigs; The Afghan Whigs (YouTube) -- https://www.youtube.com/user/AfghanWhigsOfficial; The Afghan Whigs (Instagram) -- https://www.instagram.com/theafghanwhigs/)
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Review by . Review posted Thursday, October 26th, 2017. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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