Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov famously described human existence as “but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness”. Greg Dulli, The Afghan Whigs’ redoubtable frontman, takes a much bleaker view.
Outside his window, the Ohio-born singer sees a world populated by cheats and charlatans, liars, misanthropes and monsters. Worse than that, he has long held the suspicion that he might be the most despicable, cold-hearted motherfucker among them. This sentiment infuses Afghan Whigs’ finest work – most notably 1993’s Gentlemen and 1996’s film noir-influenced Black Love – and bled into his writing with The Twilight Singers and The Gutter Twins following the Whigs’ dissolution in 2001.
Happily, 16 years on from their supposed swansong 1965, the reborn Afghan Whigs’ songs retain that shame. The first group from outside the Pacific Northwest to sign to Sub Pop, Dulli’s band had little in common with their grunge contemporaries, being influenced more by Detroit soul, R&B and funk than by the garage rock of The Replacements and Hüsker Dü. Part soul revue, part revivalist meeting, their live shows were the stuff of legend, with Dulli dropping snatches of Prince, TLC, Pink Floyd and Temptations songs into the mix.
Such eclecticism and dexterity remains their calling card. The work of men, not boys, Do To The Beast is unquestionably a rock album, but it’s one possessed of a rare sophistication, swagger and cinematic scope. The devil, as always, is in the detail, and the layering of disparate tones and textures here is striking, from the Ennio Morricone flourishes colouring Algiers to the dirty funk groove underpinning Matamoros through to the brooding orchestral sweep of These Sticks.
The spectre of mortality hangs heavy over proceedings, with Dulli singing of redemption, obsession and lust, his words dripping with gravitas and regret. ‘I know you’re sleeping with another demon,’ he croons on the remorseful Royal Cream. ‘It kills to watch you love another,’ he winces on the gospel-tinged It Kills, a resigned sigh from a man who knows damn well he has only himself to blame. That Dulli’s self-lacerating lapsed Catholic guilt remains firmly in place will be a source of great joy for long-time fans. That his band’s resurrection has been effected here with such grace and élan is better news still.
At their peak, The Afghan Whigs were one of America’s greatest rock’n’roll groups. Listening to Do To The Beast, it’s evident that they remain so.