I type this with a vague feeling of regret, which is a feeling I commonly associate with the Afghan Whigs. Back in the 1990s, there were seemingly always flyers posted about the place announcing that the band were once more rolling through town, and every time this happened I never went to see them, despite making a mental note to do so “next time”. I suppose I put his down to an attitude shared by others at the time, for as much as their music appealed, they never “fitted” with what was going on around them – where labelmates and supposed contemporaries were either revelling in joyful dumbness or aiming for the arenas, Cincinatti’s Afghan Whigs were on a dimly-lit path of their own making, and it was a somewhat strange path to follow at the time they were around. Especially for me personally – the darkness apparent in their words and music were at odds with what was an incredibly happy time when they were approaching their peak, and when they were coming to an end, theirs was an abyss I didn’t want to be looking too hard into during an extended and rather self-destructive period.
So to return to my opening sentence: I am once more having twinges of regret with regard to this band, and again it’s because of me not going to see them. In all honesty, I have no reason why I didn’t go to see the reformed band in London recently. Fortunately, their set at Barcelona’s Primavera festival was broadcast live over the Internet the other day, so at least I had the opportunity to make slight amends. That I was so blown away by their performance was the reason why I went straight back into their back-catalogue with a view to picking one for highlighting here. And because I couldn’t pick one, I chose three of them instead.
First up is Gentlemen, and there’s no getting round the fact that it’s an utterly bizarre record. Opening in a whispered panic with If I Were Going and the line “What should I tell her? She’s going to ask…”, the overarching concept of the album is laid bare in the most unflinching terms. Infidelity is the name of the game here, described in turns defiantly, guiltily, almost-celebratory and always matter-of-factly. The title track sets the tone with its “Your attention please” request intoned almost as a sneer and a backing that, throughout most of the songs here, makes for the absolute essential definition of the Afghan Whigs’ sound, all sharp points and incredibly memorable hooks. Even the more reflective moments such as When We Two Parted, I Keep Coming Back and the stunning emotional high/depth (depending on your point of view) of My Curse all contain barbs ready to catch the unwary listener.
It’s certainly a bleak overview of the human condition, and a very difficult and uncomfortable listen – the aforementioned My Curse reputedly being a song that Greg Dulli couldn’t bring himself to sing, instead drafting in Marcy Mays to do an incredible job of performing, the female vocals giving an unexpected twist to proceedings and accentuating the dual cavalier/wounded nature of the record. It can be a genuinely hurtful listen at times, but it’s never cold.
How to follow on from such a stark and distressed album? By making an absolute masterpiece, hats how. Black Love is a complicated affair that brings the band’s more soulful influences firmly to the fore, and a wider-reaching set of issues from Dulli’s psyche. Where Gentlemen was incredibly introspective to the point of self-obsession, Black Love is more outwardly angry with tracks such as My Enemy and Blame, Etc, (both heavily Stones-influenced numbers in the guitar department) pointing the finger away from the self and allowing for a different approach to songwriting.
Benefitting from a sound that seems to have had a few more quid spent on it than its predecessors, Black Love builds nicely on Gentlemen’s foundations, Step Into The Light especially following on musically (albeit in a more positive direction lyrically) from the third act of the previous album. And despite the title and occasional musical lashing out, it’s a curiously lighter experience on the ears and on the soul, with the final three tracks (Bulletproof, Summer’s Kiss and Faded) being ascendant to the point of exultancy and the sort of tracks that most bands would happily kill to have as individual career-defining moments, let alone all three following each other on one record. It’s still dark, but it’s an accepted darkness, typified by the lines in Going To Town (“When you say ‘Now we’ve got Hell to pay’, don’t worry baby, that’s OK, I know the Boss”) and the simpler idea in Honky’s Ladder (“Got you where I want you, motherfucker”), and suggesting to listeners that the Whigs are firmly in control of the situation, even if they weren’t necessarily in control of themselves at his point (“Are my thoughts of a man who can call himself sane?” Dulli asks himself). Magnificent, and truly one of those rare albums that really lets you know that you’ve listened to something special.
The triumvirate is completed by 1965, which dispenses with the formalities of an extended introduction, because that would just be getting in the way of the fun. A single match-strike is all that Somethin’ Hot needs to throw us into their new world of gleefully-accepted hedonism. All introspection is cast aside for this one, a collection of “this is us, we’ve dealt with it, now it’s your turn” songs that represents the band’s best moments as songwriters.
And what a collection of songs we have here. This is the sound of a group who have grown together and passed through some testing times, and who now know how to enjoy themselves without letting go of the spirit that brought them together in the first place. This is a unit that is tight, professional and who know exactly how they want their work to sound. Perfectly produced, each track has exactly what it needs to work and knows which buttons need to be pressed in order to lift the roof every time, whether it’s the judicious use of a horn section or the exemplary vocal talents of Susan Marshall (both of which blow the walls out of the incredible John The Baptist), nothing is left to chance.
The somewhat disquieting interlude of Sweet Son Of A Bitch aside, 1965 sees the Afghan Whigs confidently on the up, making a record that is just at home outside in the sunshine as previous works were at in 4am dives. Uptown Again and 66 are uplifting anthems, just as Crazy and The Slide Song are perfect Sunday Morning bed-ins. There are still elements of their previous darkness to hand in the words and sentiments of Neglekted and Omertà, but these are played with a glint in the eye and a knowing grin rather than Gentlemen’s tortured self-analysis or Black Love’s sense of noirish drama. It’s probably safe to say that the Afghan Whigs found their spiritual comfort zone in 1965, although it’s a shame that this didn’t catapult them into their rightful place at the very highest of regard and that the expanding geographical separation of the band’s members led to their eventual dissolution in 2001.
After watching the Primavera footage, and spending a day reacquainting myself with this essential part of their back catalogue, I’m left wondering if the hoary old adage of being “not of their time” actually applies to this lot. Hindsight has been kind to the Afghan Whigs, they’ve survived bad times and mad times and have helped some of us survive times of our own, whether they intended to or not, leaving us to look back and enjoy everything that went on safe in the knowledge that it happened almost twenty years ago and we all have other things to be worrying about now. Because of this, I hope that the current wave of shows isn’t their last (if only so that I can actually make more of an effort next time), and that they finally find their audience in the numbers that they deserve.