Greg Dulli hasn’t really stopped making music since 1986, but it’s always a special occasion when he gets The Afghan Whigs back together. The Whigs come roaring back after five years of silence to deliver an incendiary new album (How Do You Burn? releasing 9/9 on Royal Cream/BMG). These are challenging times and Covid, isolation, canceled tours, making an album separated by time and space tethered with digital tools can take their toll. The Whigs endure. Sometimes it's easy to forget The Whigs were one of the first non-Seattle bands on Sub Pop way back and came up at the same time as Seattle bands Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, and Alice in Chains. Most of those band’s lead singers (Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell, Layne Staley, and, most recently, Mark Lanegan) have passed away. Lanegan’s spirit wanders through the album; he suggested the title and his sepulchral vocals appear throughout. Dulli is almost the last man standing (save Mark Arm from Mudhoney). If so, he’s making a helluva Eddie Munson-esque stand and bringing us along for the ride.
The world moves, tastes shift, band members come and go and come back. Greg Dulli is still making music as interesting and vital as ever. Longtime partner John Curley (bass), Jon Skibic (guitar), Patrick Keeler (drums), Rick Nelson (strings), Matthias Schneeberger (synths) are vital in bringing this generation’s Whigs to life.
The Whigs shoot right out of the gate with the aggressive “I’ll Make You See God.” Dulli pleads “Come kiss the night awake” as the band bashes and cruises like Foo Fighters on nitrous. Dulli claims the song is a product of pure adrenalin; it’s as fast and urgent as anything they’ve done in years, burning fast and lean like something off Big Top Halloween or Up in It, but more surefooted. The track was featured in the PlayStation game Gran Turismo 7 and it feels like a car on the edge of losing control, going to town with the foot slammed on the gas. There’s not much empty space in the song- it ratchets up in a storm of drums, becoming more and more frantic as Dulli tries to keep his cool and unravels.
“The Getaway” opens up into more familiar ground as Dulli raggedly croons over piano and the production comes in around him, washing over him in translucent Beatle-esque layers. Maybe one of the reasons the Whigs have made it so long is their broad palette and widescreen cinematic view. There are traces of “Dear Prudence,” “A Day in the Life,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and other bits that float away before you can pin them. Again, history - for those born a bit later, Dulli sang the John Lennon parts on the soundtrack of the 1994 film Backbeat, expertly channeling Lennon’s raspy fervor. That influence shines through here.
The Whigs never settle into one sound and that’s just fine because they excel at all of them. “Jyja” trundles with an underlying Pink Floyd/ “Have a Cigar “ tension as Dulli boasts/mourns, “I am perpetual motion.”Menace and Mark Lanegan’s ghost permeate in layers, making it uneasy, but thrilling, going.
“Please, Baby, Please” is welcome relief and soothes with a hopeful ‘70s / “O-h-h Child” Vibe. Dulli crafts a bed of drums, guitar, electric piano and organ underneath that Prince circa Sign o’ The Times would love.
Sonically, there are echoes of their 1996 masterpiece Black Love. “Take Me There “and “Catch a Colt” would fit neatly into those song sequences. The latter thrills as it shapeshifts into soulful semi-Blaxploitation vibes worthy of Bobby Womack or Curtis Mayfield; cue the DeVille and the mirror shades for “Crime Scene Part 2.”You can run from your past, but you can’t hide. Dulli lets you see how hard he’s holding onto the fragile swagger as he sings: “Now You underestimate how far that I will go” as Susan Marshall wails behind him.
The most beautiful moments on the album come courtesy of Marcy Mays (from Columbus group Scrawl). Mays returns on the ravishing “Domino and Jimmy” almost thirty years after her shattering solo vocal lead on Gentlemen’s “Curse.” This time Dulli shares the stage with her and there’s some back and forth. It’s not clear (at least to me) if they’re supposed to be the same couple. Mays bemoans, “I am your sadness, baby/Your light of day/Like a living ghost/You get lost inside my head”. Dulli counters, “You seem to insinuate that I leave/I know it's been awhile /But baby if you were waiting for me/We're going out in style.” Maybe they found peace or at least détente after all these years. One benefit of seeing The Afghan Whigs (or Twilight Singers) in Cincinnati is that Marcy Mays sometimes comes down to join them on a song or two. Let’s hope.
Overall, the album feels like a lost soundtrack to a movie that was never made. Maybe one of those ‘70s Sunday afternoon movies like Vanishing Point or Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. On the run from the law, burning up road and you know it’s not gonna end well. The album literally ends in flames (with the song “In Flames”) and Dulli sighing. “I’m an orphan, it’s four in the morning/I’m breathing in ashes in so many ways/ Until then" - Let’s hope it’s not another five years.
Pre-order How Do You Burn? HERE!