You all know the story: Back in the post-Nevermind ’90s, every band in the underground, no matter how strange or anti-commercial, was getting swept up by major labels, branded as grunge, patted on the ass, and sent off to the trenches. The Afghan Whigs were hardly the weirdest band to benefit from that signing spree; actually, despite sounding like no one else, they’re one of the most approachable bands of the era, especially when compared with genuine freaks like the Flaming Lips and Butthole Surfers. But they also most certainly weren’t a grunge band any more than fellow Elektra signees Bjork, Phish or the Breeders were grunge bands.
What were they, then? Gentlemen, their major-label debut and fourth LP, is a fantastic primer, painting the Cincinnati combo as purveyors of illicit rock ’n’ soul about damaged people doing despicable things that somehow sprouted from Ohio’s flourishing alt-rock underground. It’s a momentous record — arguably the group’s most beloved work, the one that cuts the deepest, the one that got a 33 1/3 book — and it rewards frequent revisitation. And considering that Gentlemen’s twentieth anniversary was Saturday, now’s a mighty fine time to revisit it.
I’m a proud Ohioan, so of course I ride for Afghan Whigs. I’ll listen to Greg Dulli remake just about any song imaginable into his own black-buttoned-downed image. (Even his “Hey Ya!” cover is acceptable, which…) I just about lost my mind when the reunited Whigs teamed with Usher (and fellow Ohio product Sinkane!) at SXSW. But I was also 10 when Gentlemen came out, and bumping a lot of DC Talk at the time, so there was no way I was going to stumble into Dulli’s smoky, lascivious underworld, despite the fact that the Whigs lived two hours down the road and were collaborating with musicians from my hometown. So I had to work my way backwards; a decade later, I discovered Dulli’s post-Whigs project Twilight Singers at my college radio station, then picked up the Whigs’ swan song 1965 from one of those musical guru friends who opens you up to new worlds, then finally found my way to Gentlemen a few years later.
When I finally did descend into this album — and trust me, it’s a descent — I was shocked by the frankness, the viciousness of it all. It’s a tale of the dark side of the nightlife, an endless cycle of wounded psyches medicated with liquor and the animalistic hookups that flow out of the drinking, which only leads to more guilt and pain. All those coping mechanisms turn out to be useless Band-Aids on a broken soul, and matched with killer songwriting and a crack band, it makes for stunning theater. The record opens with “If I Were Going,” a breathtaking scene-setter that introduces Greg Dulli as a scarred antihero caught up in a dysfunctional love affair: “What should I tell her? She’s going to ask. If I ignore it, it gets uncomfortable. She’ll want to argue ’bout the past.” The guilt and confusion pile up almost as fast as the lies, to the point that Dulli intones, “I think I’m starting to believe it all myself,” but his narration throughout depicts clear-eyed confessions of a conscience that’s anything but clear.
From there, the record tracks all the stubborn flailing and painful unraveling in unflinchingly raw lyrics. “Unlock the cabinet/ I’ll take whatever ya got” gives way to “Let me drink/ Let me tie off/ I’m really slobberin’ now!” There’s a note of enjoyment alongside the resignation: “They’re saying that the victim doesn’t want it to end/ Good, I get to dress up and play the assassin again/ It’s my favorite/ It’s got personality.” But a role is exactly what Dulli’s dick-swinging badassery turns out to be. Comparisons to jail and hell abound, steeped in a Catholic guilt that suggests being honest about your misdeeds brings torment, not absolution, even as keeping it hidden disintegrates the soul too. Not to get all Scott Stapp on you, but Dulli sings like a man who’s created his own prison: “Tonight I go to hell for what I done to you/ This ain’t about regret, it’s when I tell the truth.”
Dulli howls all these harrowing lines with the throat-searing passion of the old rock, soul and R&B records he likes to namecheck. Compared to the other “alternative” bands of the day, this was soulful stuff for sure, but the influence of black music on Afghan Whigs is perhaps overstated. Gentlemen is most definitely a guitar-rock record of the early ’90s, very much a product of its time. The guitars on “Be Sweet” are halfway between Peter Buck’s warm jangle and J Mascis’ cataclysmic distorted wailing — it’s just that Mascis or Michael Stipe would never sing a lyric like “Ladies, let me tell you about myself/ I got a dick for a brain, and my brain is gonna sell my ass to you.” Closing instrumental “Brother Woodrow / Closing Prayer” is a gorgeous orchestral alt-rock instrumental that wouldn’t sound out of place on the Wrens’ The Meadowlands. “What Jail Is Like” could be a Pavement song minus the irony. On “Fountain And Fairfax,” pianos and strings add gravitas to Dulli’s confessionals.
The emotional wreckage culminates in “My Curse,” a song so intense Dulli couldn’t bring himself to sing it. Instead, the Whigs recruited Marcy Mays from Columbus indie rockers Scrawl, and she absolutely nails the role of Dulli’s wounded foil. The effect of a female voice eight songs deep in the record is striking. It plays like a response from someone just as wounded but just as much a willing participant in this madness. The band’s legendary performance of the song at England’s Reading Festival is enough to bring anybody to tears, and after consuming Dulli levels of booze it might be enough to pull you under for good. (Be advised.) But it’s also a kind of salve, a reminder that a soul-clobbering rock song can set yourself free from what ails you, if only for a few minutes. It’s the pinnacle of an album full of conflicted catharsis, a record whose swagger and self-immolation stands the test of time. There’s not a lot of pride left to go around by the time Gentlemen is over, but it’s a record everyone involved with can be very, very proud of.