I’m a huge Greg Dulli/Afghan Whigs/Twilight Singers fan, but when I dropped the (metaphorical) needle on their fifth full-length album, Dynamite Steps, the other day, I was a bit skeptical on first listen. The first track featured some of Dulli’s most off-key singing EVER (which is saying something — he once compared his voice to a “vocal Cadillac purring, albeit with pitch and tone issues”, which just about sums it up). His sour notes seemed to pull down the soaring sweetness of the rest of the music. It didn’t seem to improve a lot from there — the atmospherics were all in place, Dulli writes and orchestrates atmosphere you can cut with a knife, but you need more than atmosphere to make an album really come alive. The songs almost felt like sketches, or like they needed another idea apiece to finish them off. Some of the juxtapositions of the song elements didn’t seem to fit at first, or felt a little awkward. The only song that really connected on first listen was “Gunshots”, and that didn’t even seem like that great big of a song. I’d heard “On the Corner” live (sort of; I caught the webcast when the Whigs played SXSW) so I liked that and knew it, but the rest seemed, well…lacking. Too bad, I thought, and hit play again. Maybe Dulli’s run dry of ideas.
I should have known better. This is a very deeply constructed album, ladies and gentlemen; don’t let the surface fool you. This record now has its hooks into me and I want to get sucked under. I want it to pull me down and overwhelm me, drown me and swamp me, fill my sinuses and empty my mind, spin me around and drop me and pick me up again. I don’t know how he did it, but he did it. And I love it.
You will get sucked in — by the reflective, brooding, spare piano that leads in “Get Lucky”; by the gnarly countrified groove that spirals out the end of “Blackbird and the Fox”; by the captivating layers and layers of sound that open the album in “Last Night in Town.” You will be beguiled, as I was, by the late-afternoon-golden-sun-flooding-in vibe of “The Beginning of the End”, or the frantic fuzzed-out shred and hammer of “Waves”, as Dulli’s voice soars over the top of the chaos. You’ll be transfixed as Dulli steadily leads his band in plowing through “She Was Stolen”, trying by straight grit, sweat, and fidelity to crest the heights of inspiration and taking you with him without a fight, enchanted. Dulli characterized this record as “70’s AM rock” in interviews, and after spinning it two or three dozen times I think I hear why. It’s not in hackneyed sonic signifiers, nor in trite tropes or clichés borrowed from decades past; it’s the way the music shimmers, resonates, and rolls through your soul…when it’s not tapping into that 2am-dead still-pensive/depressed/brooding vibe that Dulli holds patents on in 15 countries (see “Be Invited” for an outstanding example off this LP.) These are not songs; these are peeks into someone’s head, looking through their eyes, entering strange rooms that somehow you feel you’ve been in before — like getting to know someone you’ve just met, and realizing you knew them far better than you thought at first.
As always, Dulli’s lyrics are poetry inscribed in the gutter with one eye on the stars, but he’s reached a new level of sophistication (and abstraction) here. There’s a narrative somewhere in here, but danged if I can tease it out. Maybe Dulli can’t. That’s okay. Read in (or out)what you want, because it’s wide open; elliptical and veiled enough to be anyone’s truth, and personal enough to be yours. Self-destruction, warning, revenge, the gravity exerted by addiction, redemption, cheap thrills and the gut-punched ache of loyalty to another frail, broken human — all here, in spades, and then some. Once again I’m hooked.