The Triumphant Return of The Afghan Whigs
The Afghan Whigs broke up in 2001, when they were at the height of their powers.
This wasn’t a band that faded away, or got too old. (And what does it mean to be too old in rock music, anyway?) This was a band that had just released a string of fantastic albums; their final album, “1965,” was released during my senior year of college, and my friends and I played it constantly.
If The Afghan Whigs’ goal was to leave their fans wanting more, they succeeded. Years later, their albums still sounded fresh and vital to me. The band had risen to prominence in the alt-rock/grunge boom of the 1990s, but their sound was unique and resistant to pigeon-holing: a dark and haunting blend of hard rock, soul and R&B. The Afghan Whigs wore their influences on their sleeve, delighting fans with propulsive and achingly beautiful covers of popular songs such as Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold” and “Come See About Me” by The Supremes.
I assumed that bandleader Greg Dulli was telling the truth when he said that The Afghan Whigs would never get back together again. But in 2012, they toured. And earlier this month they released their seventh full-length album, “Do to the Beast.”
With the exception of The Replacements (who have been touring and recorded cover songs for the “Songs for Slim” benefit album), I can’t think of a band I would be more excited to see reunite and put out new music. And most of the bands I wish would get back together and write new material could only do so if long-dead members were resurrected. But The Afghan Whigs are very much alive. I pre-ordered the new album on Amazon, and slipped it into the CD player in my car as soon as it arrived.
After listening to “Do to the Beast” somewhere between 12 and 20 times, here’s what I can tell you:
— This is a very good CD. I’m not sure it ranks with their best work — the album lacks the one or two standout songs you find on “Congregation,” “What Jail is Like,” “Black Love” and “1965” — but I’m not sure it matters. Just hearing new Afghan Whigs music gave me chills. And the songs are very strong — intense, melodic, catchy and seductive. In other words, their overall sound has not changed. Which is a good thing. I like their sound.
— On “Do to the Beast,” The Afghan Whigs continue to explore the same themes they’ve always explored — sex, relationships, obsessions, loneliness and psychological gamesmanship. Dulli sounds just as dangerous and dysfunctional as ever — charismatic, self-destructive, brooding and wild. He’s an unrepentant sinner, and he doesn’t appear to have mellowed during the Whigs’ 16 year hiatus. He’s more polished and thoughtful than the man who growled “Don’t forget the alcohol!” on the seminal album “Congregation,” but he’s still the kind of guy your parents warned you about.
— Some bands — Coldplay comes to mind — are ruined by success, because they overproduce their music and add all sorts of unnecessary instruments and sounds to songs that would sound much, much better in a more stripped down form. The Afghan Whigs have always bucked this trend. If they add strings and bring in a female vocalist, it sounds great. If they write a 10-minute song with retro wah-wah guitars, it’s awesome. If they cover an operatic song from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” it’s cool. Other bands simply can’t get away with this stuff. How do the Whigs do it? I have no idea, but I’m glad they decided to use strings and piano and that Dulli occasionally sings in falsetto. One of the most amazing things about The Afghan Whigs is how they come so perilously close to becoming a caricature of themselves, only to pull away from the edge.
— I’m not sure “Do to the Beast” will win The Afghan Whigs new fans, but for old fans it’s one of the most exciting musical developments of the year. I love the album, warts and all, and I’m sure my Afghan Whigs-loving fans will love it, too. And, really, what more do I want?
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