For those of us who experienced the 90s the first time around, the recent way in which media is carting out the Last Great Decade’s relics and nostalgia is, in theory, sort of cool but also, actually, sort of not.
I’m extremely fond of the 90s, as are most people I know who grew up in that decade. I’ve watched myself and many of my peers clutch onto 90s pop culture as if loosening our grip, even a little bit, might result in our ceasing to exist. In the 90s, indie music was a thing you had to work a lot harder to unearth. When I discovered something truly great, the reward seemed a lot greater back then. But as we moved into the 2000s, that feeling of discovery started to slip away.
Think about it: As the 90s came to a close, the internet was just getting started spewing its 1s and 0s all over everything. What was once precious and protected about music was instantaneously shot through a global system of interconnected computer networks, shared aggressively and illegally, and ultimately commoditized to death. Ain’t nothing sacred no more (see Miley Cyrus’ “artistic” relationship with Wayne Coyne as a point of reference).
So, what does that mean for a band like the Afghan Whigs—a band with the majority of their career existing almost squarely within the 90s? Can a band like the Whigs cash in on all the 90s love happening these days? Should they? If yes, then how?
The last thing I personally need right now is for a band as smart, soulful, and capable as Afghan Whigs to bastardize their entire legacy to make a few bucks.
Defunct bands of any generation have one of the following options when it comes to constructing a comeback:
- Simply center a tour on old material (with or without the entire band intact)
- Play a few one-off shows of everyone’s most beloved album
- Make a new record and attempt a real comeback (the bravest move of all)
The Afghan Whigs chose a mixed bag approach. After a well-received reunion tour back in 2012, the “band” returned to the recording studio to churn out a new album. Do To The Beast came out earlier this spring and the band is currently touring on the strength of its release.
I’ve broken down a critical analysis of the Afghan Whigs’ return to the rock arena into the three most important musical components. Let’s do this.
The music on Do To The Beast does not disappoint. Here, the music has ups and downs, reaching new heights and possibly news lows. The music ebbs and flows to be grander, heavier, more subdued, less groovy, more orchestral, and definitively designed to accompany Dulli as he spins his darkened, or enlightened, tales.
Do To The Beast sounds like a Whigs album, and yet it also stretches into other territories, too. Perhaps that is because the only other original member here is bassist John Curley. Guitarist Rick McCollum isn’t present on this album and apparently the band never had a fixed drummer in place anyway. A rotating cast of musicians delivers the album: Joseph Arthur, Mark McGuire, Joanna Najera, and members of bands such as Chavez and Queens of the Stone Age.
It would seem that lineup logistics ended up being an important factor as to why or how the Whigs avoided any shitty 90s nostalgia throwback approach that could have easily plagued this album.
That being said, if only two of the original members are making a record, is it really a bona-fide Afghan Whigs record? (In the name of saving time, I’ll let that loaded question play itself out in the comments section below.)
The Music Grade: B+
Frontman Greg Dulli is a true wordsmith and is most willing to walk into the darkest corners of his mind, his heart, and his habits more so than almost any other songwriter out there. It’s that shit-done-gone-wrong feeling that Dulli illustrates best, and Whigs records are in their finest form when they meet the listener at this level of fucked-up intensity.
Not all Whigs records have delivered on this level equally, mind you. Where 1992’s Congregation and 1993’s Gentlemen were pure exercises in self-loathing where the more punishing aspects of sex, drugs, and love are concerned, other subsequent albums, such as 1965 and Black Love—great as they were—ducked out of these darkened lyrical alleyways to varying degrees.
On Do To The Beast, we get a different lyrical beast from Dulli altogether. This is most definitely an Afghan Whigs album (Dulli’s other side projects do not project too much here). However, with the tragic edge of Dulli’s bad habits now necessarily dulled, the passage of time has resulted in songs revealing in redemption, deities drowned in reality, and Dulli reveling in his new lease on life.
While Do To The Beast isn’t quite near the sheer awesomeness of the band’s earlier lyrical material, there are moments and one-liners as good as any Dulli has written. In case anyone fears, Dulli has cleaned up the lyrical language along with his vices. “The Lottery” features this particularly grim gem: “Remedy disguise the pen / You let her slip out of the tourniquet again.”
However, on the whole, Dulli was incredibly wise to build upon the Whigs lyrical foundation after a 16-year hiatus rather than try to rehash it.
With Do To The Beast, we who grew up with this band are easily able to identify with the lyrical content and get to grow alongside Dulli and the Whigs. Shit done gone wrong for me and for you, you and you, and with age comes such wisdom as is found on this record.
The Lyrics Grade: Solid A
The Live Show
I attended the Afghan Whigs show this past Friday in Philly, which appears to be about the midway point of this tour. Regrettably, I left Union Transfer that night with totally mixed feelings.
The set started out strong. They launched into the first two tracks of Do To The Beast—“Parked Outside” is a monster of a song that set the tone, and “Matamoros” was delivered at a breakneck pace. Then, to the delight of everyone in the room, the band shifted effortlessly into “Fountain and Fairfax,” one of the preeminent tracks off of Gentlemen.
But, after that, things got a little… shall we say, mmm, hairy?
The Whigs performed a few covers, as they are known to do. For this show, the covers were played off of or into original tracks—a cool idea that ultimately made for some more schizophrenic moments.
“I Am Fire” unfolded into Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk.” Jeff Buckley’s “Morning Theft” was spun into “It Kills.” “Lost in the Woods” transformed into The Beatles’ “Getting Better,” thus concluding the band’s set on a positive yet almost too naive note that confirmed my soul is basically dead. The encore kicked off with Jesus Christ Superstar’s “Heaven On Their Minds,” which rolled right into 1965’s lead track “Somethin’ Hot.” (Aside from the start of the show, this was the only other moment I had a sincerely positive physical reaction to what I was experiencing.)
There were slow songs and fast songs and loud songs and soft songs. Dulli was wailing into a mic, playing guitar, playing piano, and even pounding on a big-ass tom-tom drum that stage hands brought on and off stage a few times.
There was what I can only describe as a “hype man in a pimp outfit” for certain songs. There was also a ridiculous light show featuring five or six beams of blinking light blasting out to crowd from the stage, both shrouding the band in cool shadowy effects while simultaneously almost giving me a seizure for the entire length of the show.
It was all a lot to take in.
The show was about as in your face as Dulli’s own narcissistic personality, but not in a good way. If they would’ve cut the bullshit light affects, at the very least, for something more soulful and low key, I might have felt completely different about the experience. Those lights were goddamn distracting and made it incredibly hard to connect.
That all aside, the tally of older Afghan tunes played: nine. Certainly enough for a comeback show, although there were entirely too many off of Black Love, and also, surprisingly, one off of Up On It.
Aside from all of the elements that were crowded into this show’s set, at the end of the night the band was kind of sloppy. Perhaps if the band weren’t so focused on putting on “show,” they would’ve, you know, put more energy into playing seamlessly together. With everything that was happening on onstage (and flying ferociously into my rods and cones), they simply couldn’t mask the fact that they need to tighten their shit up.
The Live Show Grade: C+
I love that the Afghan Whigs made a new album, a solid one at that, and set out on a tour designed to meld together a past and present. The sound was great, is still great, still relevant, and those wickedly honest lyrics are way better than what most musicians write these days.
But, let’s face it. We’re all there to see Greg Dulli perform. And he does perform. But he also needs an editor where his showmanship is concerned. Tone it down a bit, man, and let your own self EMERGE from the dark corners and twisted alleyways of your experiences. I believe that is what Dulli was doing, but he was lost in a lot of other crap going on onstage.
PSA to Greg Dulli: Your fans are connected to your music, your lyrics, your soulfulness, your heart, your ability to break, your struggle with innocence, your fucked up past, and also your hopeful present. We want to see YOU.
Jocelyn Hoppa still uses a Walkman and has a closet full of flannel. Follow her on Twitter - @jhoppa