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The Afghan Whigs explore darkness and depression in Black Love

In March of 1996, the Afghan Whigs released its fifth album, Black Love, the much-anticipated follow up to the breakthrough record, Gentlemen. On Black Love, lead singer and lyricist Greg Dulli and the rest of the Whigs (John Curley on bass, Rick McCollum on guitar, and new drummer Paul Buchignani) successfully refined and expanded the lyrical and musical themes that had coalesced in the Whigs’ previous work. The album contains stories of intrigue, songs about lust, intrigue, desire, and a whole host of other deadly sins, wrapped in music that merges the Afghan Whigs’ singular blend of aggressive, stylized rock ’n’ roll guitar and R&B rhythms.

The roots of Black Love grew from the music, film, and literature Greg Dulli turned to while fighting a deep depression. He immersed himself into roman noir, reading Jim Thompson’s small-town pulp fiction and James Ellroy’s L.A. crime dramas; he watched the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple over and over again; and went back and re-read The Oedipus Trilogy after seeing The Gospel At Colonus, a remarkable gospel version of the Sophocles tragedy, Oedipus At Colonus. “I don’t go to church any more, but I came out of that thing feeling cleansed,” Dulli said in the Whigs’ label biography written in ’96. “That combined with all the crime novels I was reading, all the noir films I was watching, and my generally twisted state of mind, crystalized into what I wanted to do.”

What Dulli culled from those diverse sources were the beats of high drama: sorrow and lamentation, joy and exultation, deceit, compromised morals, dead reckoning, and brutal honesty. Most importantly, there are actual consequences. “Compulsion is an accurate word to describe the mood I’m looking for,” Dulli told Spin in 1996. And unlike Gentlemen, although there are also bruised hearts and broken promises, Black Love is not a straight tale of lost love and betrayal—deception and disappointment can result from within friendships and families.

“It’s set up like the adaptation of a crime novel,” Dulli said in 1996. So Black Love has a definite dramatic arc, a specific beginning, middle, and end. “In a world that wants only singles, we strive for something whole, that’s of a piece,” he told Billboard shortly before the album’s release. Additionally, the elements from the framework of noir as a genre is a component of the songwriting on Black Love: The protagonist is the victim, the suspect or the criminal, and there’s a deliberate emphasis on sex, and the use of sex to advance the plot.

Black Love opens with the sounds of a train on a track, leaving a station, squealing off into the distance, setting an aura of departure, escape, and farewell. It foreshadows the saga’s end before the first note is sung. This is overlaid with a melody line from an organ, solemn, church-like—another clue to what’s ahead. “It does start as a flashback,” Dulli said in 1996. “Crime Scene Part 1” begins with a clear declaration: “Tonight, tonight, I say goodbye / To everyone who loves me.” But that’s not all: “Stick it to my enemies tonight / Then I disappear.”

Like every single song on Black Love, the opening track isn’t about just one emotion. There’s regret and revenge, desperation and anger. “Do you think I’m beautiful? Or do you think I’m evil?” Dulli sings over a deep, dark melody that grows in power and volume, before exploding into a full-on Afghan Whigs attack, the organ swinging, the lead guitar shrieking into the nether regions. At the end, the melody recedes, then surges back in, before the music fades out and the train comes around the corner one more time. Nothing about the track is straight-ahead or predictable, and it convincingly sets the tone for what’s to come.

Dueling guitars shift to the next scene, with “My Enemy.” Shades of black, a dense background of guitar and bass and drums set to a tale of friendship that turned into betrayal—simple enough, a story as old as time. The pace is elevated, slashing guitar solos heightening the excitement. “Double Day,” up next, comes down a few beats, and the atmosphere becomes quieter, more intimate, as Dulli sings about paranoia, and how your mind can play tricks on you. The song’s structure reflects the emotional tenor of the story: quiet, calm on one verse, modulating into mania on the next, switching back and forth. The rhythm section is as measured as a heartbeat in both scenarios.

“Blame, Etc.” pulses with heat and the heart of obsession, beginning with Dulli’s camp “Purr” at the track’s start, and then the layers of instrumentation: guitar, bass, strings, congas, wicked scratch chords on one guitar, a bubbling funk line coming out of the other, the pace urgent and breathless. In 1996, Dulli told Melody Maker, “This is the story of [The Temptations’] David Ruffin in four minutes,” and “Blame, Etc.” proudly sounds like the Whigs took “Ball Of Confusion” and “Psychedelic Shack” and put them in a blender. (Back in ’96, the live version would often kick off with “Papa Was A Rolling Stone.”)

On “Step Into The Light,” our hero is trying to cool the situation down. He’s hurt, he’s begging, he’s pleading, he’s in trouble, his world will end without your sweet, sweet love. There are layers of guitars, Rick McCollum’s pedal steel sounding elegantly wasted, Dulli’s voice on edge, and some gorgeous Fender Rhodes couplets on the choruses (courtesy of Columbus’ Harold Chichester) are the icing on the cake. But the record pauses only briefly, as the mechanical drum beat for “Going To Town” heralds lights, camera, action.

The story has reached the point of no return: A couple of Bonnie and Clyde wannabes get dressed to the nines, hop into their Studebaker, and drive into the sunset. They pull into a small midwestern town, empty the bank vault, douse the buildings with gasoline, and drop a single match as they make their getaway. Lyrically, it’s elegantly sparse, but Dulli’s cinematic inspiration conveys vivid, rich imagery. Musically, this is the Whigs’ absolutely shameless attempt at “Housequake” by Prince (although Dulli has compared the melody to ZZ Top, and he’s not far off). Both on record and live, “Going To Town” is a barnburner of gigantic proportions.

After all of that, it’s not surprising that the next track, “Honky’s Ladder,” is a bit of a letdown. The title has its roots in Dulli’s childhood, where he freely crossed the lines between the black neighborhoods and the white neighborhoods in Cincinnati. The song is the most commercial-sounding of anything else on the album (and was the first single), but it’s also the least compelling, and doesn’t feel like an organic part of the existing story arc. But the following track, “Night By Candlelight,” successfully brings the listener back inside. It’s a quiet ballad underscoring self-reflection, a personal inventory, and echoes back to the album’s genesis: “Are my thoughts of a man / Who can call himself sane?”

“Bulletproof” is the beginning of the end, it is a confession and a prayer to the world and to the hero’s lover, it is a declaration of intent: We will survive, our love will survive. The fervor of this tale is conveyed by a nonstop, strident wall of guitars, the rhythm section swinging in lockstep, getting larger with each verse, each chorus. This leads to the ferociousness of the last two minutes, where manic piano kicks in, and then Dulli is screaming, “LOOOOVVVEEEEE,” evoking no less than Roger Daltrey at the end of Quadrophenia (a record that the Whigs have all invoked multiple times throughout their career as a major inspiration). So it makes sense that the next song, “Summer’s Kiss,” is underpinned by Paul Buchignani’s tremendous Keith Moon-inspired drum rolls, continually expanding the space of the song, driving it forward. “Summer’s kiss is over,” Dulli shouts amid the melee. It’s bittersweet and all-encompassing.

The train sounds from the intro fade back in at the start of the closing number, “Faded,” and it’s time to go to church, more layers of organ and piano melody, a quiet choir in the background. “Straight in,” Dulli commands, and all that’s replaced by crashing, tumultuous guitar, bass and drums. “You can believe in me, baby? / Can I believe in you?” Dulli pleads, as the guitar feedback trails off, and it’s just the warmth of Dulli’s voice and a piano, demanding forgiveness and asking for redemption, before the rest of the band charges back in. Dulli told Melody Maker that “‘Faded’ was “‘Layla’ meets ‘Purple Rain,’” but the Whigs push that ambition and emotion to the outer limits. “Faded” is a goddamn arena rock ballad, lighters aloft; it’s Al Green working his way along the edge of the stage at the Apollo Theater, grabbing at a sea of outstretched hands. All of the above comes together in the end in one giant and glorious chord, underscored by chiming piano notes and the sounds of the departing train, one last and final time.

Despite all of the effort, Black Love didn’t come close to following the success of Gentlemen. Even with a solid promotional plan and active support prior to release from label Elektra, the Whigs ended up victims of bad timing: There was a major changing of the guard at the record label not long before the album’s release, and none of the Whigs’ advocates were left when the smoke cleared, leaving them unsupported and with no champions to push the album. The record entered the Billboard 200 chart at No. 79 and unceremoniously departed after two weeks. The Whigs extricated themselves from this particular business arrangement and decamped for Columbia for their sixth and final record, on which they’d offer a little love note to their former home (“Neglekted”). The band announced its formal breakup in February 2001.

But 11 years later, when the reunited Afghan Whigs appeared for their first show at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City on May 22, 2012, the last three songs of the set were the end of Black Love, in order: “Bulletproof,” “Summer’s Kiss,” and “Faded,” with a little bit of “Purple Rain”—just like old times, to remind everyone of how it used to be.