Greg Dulli is the quintessential wounded animal-as-frontman. Across six albums and a handful of stellar EPs throughout the better part of the ’90s, Dulli and the Afghan Whigs left a swath of emotional and sexual destruction. Their early Sub Pop records were as raw lyrically as they were sonically, with a careful mix of confrontational anger and soul-man bluster set to jagged rhythms and screeching guitars. The lyrics were a bitter pill, but Dulli’s true gift was his preternatural ability to sell you on the bitterness and leave you thanking him for the privilege.
As time wore on, the band would shift from their rough-and-tumble origins toward the soul and R&B that lurked around the edges of the earliest material, a change which saw Dulli gradually trade his acrimony for a slow-burn swagger meant to seduce rather than bludgeon. The stiff-drink transition of Black Love’s funky-but-tuneless noir pastiche led directly to the discovery of actual, heartfelt soul on 1998’s swan song, 1965, and the journey was complete.
But the legacy of the most explosive Whigs records — Congregation and Gentlemen in particular — is practically written in blood. Lyrics detail emotional warfare, crumbling relationships, infidelity, sexual humiliation, and a never-ending stream of lies. But even the worst lines come from a place of vulnerability: Dulli needs to hurt because he hurts. Listening is a harrowing, addictive experience.
Now that the Afghan Whigs have officially reformed and begun releasing new material (check out last month’s simmering rendition of Marie Lyons’ “See And Don’t See,” the time is ripe to revisit the band at their characteristic best, which means digging into their emotional worst. Here are 13 of the most vicious Afghan Whigs songs, spanning their entire career — strap yourself in for a hell of a ride.
13. “Rebirth Of The Cool” – Uptown Avondale EP (1992)
Like a handful of classic bands before them (notably including the Cocteau Twins), the Afghan Whigs’ sporadic EPs chart an alternate but equally compelling history when held up alongside the more familiar full-length albums. Covers of soul classics, ripping live takes, and tweaked-out alternate mixes present a band capable of just about anything.
“Rebirth Of The Cool” is a dance remix of a hidden track off Congregation, affectionately titled “Milez Is Ded” (see what they did there?). The drum loop is generic early-’90s, but instantly familiar and somehow timeless — listening in 2012 the song feels almost contemporary, like we’ve come full circle. The robotic approach renders an already menacing track about an ugly breakup into some kind of K-hole sex anthem. Dulli’s chanted refrain “don’t forget the alcohol” feels like less of an excuse and more of a come-on, which makes it that much dirtier.
12. “Blame, Etc” – Black Love (1996)
After the open-wound honesty of Gentlemen, the Whigs buttoned up their respective collars for a stylized reinterpretation of sound and image on follow-up album Black Love. Taken as a whole, the album could be a tough sell, but the Curtis Mayfield pimp-funk of “Blame, Etc” holds up surprisingly well. Recounting some kind of fictionalized betrayal, the song basks in its own sleaze while offering up a glimpse of hope — only to snatch it away. The gentle, almost hopeful pre-chorus goes to hell as the chorus hits and Dulli screeches: “Blame, deny, betray, divide, a lie, the truth — which one shall I use?”
11. “John The Baptist” – 1965 (1998)
By the time of the final Whigs release, 1965, the band had morphed into the slick soul act they had always threatened to become (inadvertently mirroring the arc of Roxy Music two decades before), with Greg Dulli readily adopting the role of cocksure lothario. Gone are the days of wounded flailing; in its place a newfound predatory sensuality. “Come on and taste me, come on and waste me, come on erase me, I’m yours … let’s get it on.” The horn section and female backing vocals add authenticity, and the lyrics look genuine at first blush, but mask a subdued menace between the lines. “I only wanna see you happy … baby can we pretend?”
10. “My World Is Empty Without You / I Hear A Symphony” – What Jail Is Like EP (1994)
The Whigs frequently turned to soul classics on their EPs, such as this medley of The Supremes’ “My World Is Empty Without You” and “I Hear A Symphony.” Resulting in bastardized, utterly transformed renditions, these covers are some of the band’s strongest recorded material. Broken down into sparse instrumentation with frequent bursts of noise, the arrangement here allows Dulli to employ one of his best tricks: inverting the meaning of a given line by altering its delivery. The syrupy romance of “I Hear A Symphony” is effectively neutered by its dispassionate inflection, while the chorus of “My World Is Empty Without You” becomes less of a lament than a full-on assault as Dulli spits the titular line at full force.
9. “Kiss The Floor” – Congregation (1992)
Congregation showed the Whigs in classic Sub Pop mode — with roaring guitars indebted as much to the Replacements as their grunge contemporaries, the band sounded worlds away from their later incarnation. But the lyrics were already pitch black, even if the execution was often softer in the early days. “Kiss The Floor” is all nostalgic indie, rollicking drums and driving bass underneath guitars that hang over wide-open spaces (occasionally reminiscent of Jawbreaker in their channeling of momentum). The lyrics paint a picture of a sun-kissed summer fling, and it almost sounds sweet until you read deeper and realize he’s singing about a girl’s stolen virginity, and trying to evade the wrath of her brothers. “I’ve been a good boy so give it to me, and keep your brothers away from me. They know I took it, they’re coming for me.” The way he sings it, you could trick yourself into feeling wistful, almost romantic … but there’s an underlying emptiness most evident when Dulli resorts to cheapening the experience: “Shove my head against the door, crawl inside and kiss the floor. Waiting for the sun again, drink it, smoke it, stick it in.”
8.”I Know Your Little Secret” – Up In It (1990)
Here’s an early one that starts off innocently enough — just a story about a guy kissing some children and … rubbing his tongue on their gums? What the fuck. Warm chords and gentle rim clicks crash into a discordant chorus — the lead guitar wails like a siren, and Dulli barks out accusations. The song takes a turn for the worse when Dulli starts to identify with the accused. “But now we both can share, everything we’ve ever done, everyone we’ve ever touched.” And those guitars, they just wail.
7. “Tonight” – Congregation (1992)
Gentle, bluesy acoustic strumming belies this song’s true nature. The scene is set for a beautiful, woozy night from the top, but Dulli can’t help himself: “Follow me down to the bushes, dear. No one will know, we’ll disappear. I’ll hold your hand, we’ll never tell. Our private little trip to hell.” A one-track mind infects even the most peaceful of evenings, and sure enough, even the softest song on this album is rotten to the core.
6. “Conjure Me” – Congregation (1992)
One of the classic singles off Congregation, “Conjure Me” transforms a paranoid breakup into the source material for an unlikely anthem. Sung with characteristic detachment, Dulli prefigures the full-fledged battle of the sexes that he’d explore on the next album (Gentlemen) with one of the least romantic chorus hooks ever written: “I’m gonna turn on you before you turn on me. I’m gonna turn on you, can you conjure me?” The band is at the height of their powers here, with a slide guitar solo that takes away the worst of the lyrical sting, but lets the hook slide in that much deeper.
5. “Gentlemen” – Gentlemen (1993)
Gentlemen, the album, marked the big-screen, technicolor arrival of the Afghan Whigs — they jumped from Sub Pop to Elektra, and made a big, brash production without sacrificing any of the visceral power of the earlier material. It would become their undisputed classic. The title track reads like a statement of intent: “Your attention, please, now turn off the light. Your infection, please, I haven’t got all night.” Every word comes wrapped up in an armor of machismo; the bulk of the album seems to revel in the painful death of a relationship, taken from a very male perspective. It may not be a concept album, but the central theme is clear: “I stayed in too long, but she was the perfect fit. And we dragged it out so long this time, started to make each other sick.”
4. “Let Me Lie To You” – Congregation (1992)
Another delicate tune off Congregation, “Let Me Lie To You” is all drugged-out sprawl, passive cruelty, and subtle manipulation. “Let me lie to you, I’ll be kind when I deceive you. But you must never question me, just quietly believe.” As often as not, Dulli’s at his worst when you’re not expecting it.
3. “Debonair” – Gentlemen (1993)
We get the funk, we get the searing guitars, and we get the fury: “Debonair” is everything the Afghan Whigs had to offer, and Greg Dulli expresses his anger in clearer terms than ever before. He’s not making amends, he wants blood: “This ain’t about regret, my conscience can’t be found. This time I won’t repent, somebody’s going down.” It’s all outward aggression, hurting for hurt’s sake, and it’s clear there’s no going back. “Tonight I go to hell for what I’ve done to you.” Jeez.
2. “When We Two Parted” – Gentlemen (1993)
Slow, syrupy guitars drawl along, a heroin curtain comes down like a blanket of gauze, and a song that could come off sweet from any other band instead comes out utterly fucked. Dulli’s reflecting on the final days of a relationship, with all the condescending disdain you’d expect. “Baby, I see you’ve made yourself sick again. Didn’t I do a good job of pretending? You’re saying that the victim doesn’t want it to end. Good. I get to dress up and play the assassin again.” Classic, manipulative, and cruel. “If I inflict the pain, then baby only I can comfort you.” While the lyrics might twist your guts, Dulli sells every line, and you fucking buy it. The audience in the live clip above is under his spell by the end, right where he wants them.
1. “My Curse” – Gentlemen (1993)
It’s telling that the most personal, intense lyrics on the Whigs’ most personal, intense album aren’t even sung by Greg Dulli. The story goes that Dulli couldn’t bring himself to sing the words in the studio, as they were just too painful; instead they brought in Marcy Mays of Scrawl to handle the vocals. Putting a woman in Dulli’s shoes this late in the game (“My Curse” was track 8 out of 11) takes the excoriating lyrics and flips them on their head. By inverting the gender, somehow the impossible occurs — the lyrics come off even worse. On an album that seemingly exists to batter an unnamed female into submission, suddenly giving that female a voice (with Greg Dulli’s lyrics, no less) makes for a jaw-dropping experience, and you find yourself going over every line looking for new meaning. “Hurt me baby, I flinch so when you do. Your kisses scourge me.” And the arrangement is pitch perfect, all subtle power — like their most affecting material, it’s softer than you’d expect, but Marcy Mays’ vocal, both live and on record, will make your hair stand on end. “Zip me down, kiss me there. I can smile now, you won’t find out ever.” Vicious and perfect.
Afghan Whigs are on tour now. Dates here:
07/25 – The Hi-Fi, Melbourne
07/26 – The Factory, Sydney
07/27 – Splendour in the Grass, Byron Bay
08/03 – Lollapalooza, Chicago
08/04 – The Metro, Chicago
08/07 – Circus, Helsinki
08/09 – Oya Festival, Oslo
08/10 – Way Out West Festival, Göteborg
08/11 – Haldern Pop Festival, Rees-Haldern
08/14 – Palladium, Warsaw
08/15 – Lucerna Music Bar, Prague
08/17 – Pukkelpop, Hasselt
08/19 – KOKO, London
09/22 – I’ll Be Your Mirror, Asbury Park
09/28 – 9:30 Club, Washington DC
10/03 – Phoenix Theatre, Toronto
10/05 – Terminal 5, New York City
10/14 – Austin City Limits Fest, Austin
10/24 – St. Andrew’s Hall, Detroit
10/25 – Bogart’s, Cincinnati