The run of classic Afghan Whigs albums begins with Congregation. The two albums that followed it, Gentlemen and Black Love, received greater critical acclaim and fan adoration, but both only offer refined takes on what Dulli and company first innovated on Congregation. The Afghan Whigs of 1992 didn’t abandon their punk influences completely, but they changed which side of the spectrum they drew from, i.e. if Big Top Halloween and Up In It drew from the raucous energy of the Sex Pistols, then Congregation thrived more on the multicultural spirit of Sandinista!-era the Clash, only instead of reggae and Tejano experiments, the Whigs drew from classic American soul, especially Motown.
Congregation is the first album where Greg Dulli’s leviathan libido — the biggest lyrical theme in all of his projects — takes absolute center stage. The R&B may have a lot to do with it. While the classic rock idolized by Dulli’s peers — such as, say, Eddie Vedder — hid its emotions behind layers of (often ridiculous) metaphor, artists like the Supremes, the Temptations, and even the Four Tops often wrote songs that seethed with domestic drama and pent-up sexual energy. Dulli explored both themes, tying in his own kinks and a particular insight into drug dependence. “Get off that stuff she said / and I’ll stone you instead” are the first lyrics on the all-too-obvious “I’m Her Slave.” And Dulli makes a fitting servant, willing to be drowned (“Turn On The Water”) and beaten (“Kiss The Floor”) so long as he gets a decent orgasm and a good buzz in the process (the must-hear “Miles Iz Ded”). The chorus to “Conjure Me” sums up Dulli’s lyrical modus operandi succinctly: “I’m gonna turn on you / before you turn on me.”
Alongside his primary lyrical fixation, Dulli found an ideal delivery method for his madness. While he’s never been a spectacular singer, he has the sensibilities of a master vocal arranger, and the generally slower speed the Whigs adopted on Congregation let him focus on one of his best strengths: big choruses co-opted from Motown records. The album sports several of the strongest anthems in the Afghan Whigs’ career, including “Turn On The Water,” “Conjure Me,” and especially the closer, “Miles Iz Ded,” which closed out Afghan Whigs shows for most of the band’s initial run.
Additionally, the influx of money from his Sub Pop contract gave him the leeway to augment his arrangements, at least a little bit, with backing piano. The Afghan Whigs didn’t abandon their punk and noise origins completely — Congregation is still rife with feedback and noisy guitar solos, but this time the feedback is emulating the sounds of keys, sometime alongside keys. When the refined instrumentation and the Whigs’ amplifier worship coincide, such as the twinkling pianos and hugely singable two-part refrain of “Turn On The Water,” they result in some of the most dramatic rock music of the early ’90s.
And the core concept is drama. Take, for example, the rendition of “The Temple” from Jesus Christ Superstar that pops up near the end of the record; Dulli doesn’t have the pipes to sing the song as Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote it, but the Whigs absolutely nail the song’s surging changes in tone.
Less than six months after Nirvana’s Nevermind offered the world a template for what alternative rock was, the Whigs were writing the outline for what alternative could go on to become. In retrospect, one can read Congregation as a very rough draft for many of the less rocking, more arena-fixated second-wave grunge bands — want to bet several members of Dishwalla listened to “Miles Iz Ded” on repeat, digested its seamless change between crooning balladeering and absolute crushing rock, then thought “hmmm, now there’s an idea, if only it were a bit cleaner and more family-friendly”? I think much of the limp misogyny infecting post-grunge bears at least a passing resemblance to Dulli’s obsession with love-hate sexuality, albeit without the naked aggression or kinkiness — that is to say, the fun stuff. The Afghan Whigs went on to develop this theme, as well as their new pop-n-b inflected sound, on several subsequent albums, each more polished than the last, which makes Congregation, with its noisy bursts and rough edges, unique in their discography.