Greg Dulli’s favorite word by far is “baby,” and his third favorite (behind personal pronouns, which all tie for second) is “child,” both of which he intends to mean something close to “lover”his fourth favorite, just edging out “yeah,” which he seems to deploy to invoke all of the above. It’s a fairly limited vocabulary for a veteran wordsmith who most certainly spent a lifetime preparing for the day 11 years ago when he finally got to take the stage fronting the Afghan Whigs. But then, broody, sexy guys tend to be men of few words. They prefer to communicate physically, avoiding too much intellectual engagement for fear of wrecking a compelling image or, worse, getting hurt. On the Whigs’ latest, 1965, Dulli offers, “You can fuck my body, baby/But please, don’t fuck my mind.”
Dulli wants his art to be one of seductionwhich leaves him prone to saying silly things that sound more so taken out of context. This predilection hardly makes Dulli a hack. Music that’s meant to seduce or describe the act rarely produces lyric sheets worth reading; Marvin Gaye, Kate Bush, and Girls Against Boys have all written great lovemaking songs, none of them notable for dazzling wordplay.
It’s difficult to admire anyone who’d think up stuff like “If I inflict the pain then baby only I can comfort you,” though in the context of Gentlemen, the Whigs’ record on which the line appeared, the evil spirit was intended to service the prevailing conceptbasically that “gentlemen” exist who aspire to be everything but. Released in ’93, Gentlemen remains the Whigs’ finest hour, a study that found creepy power in treating love as a blood sport. If you don’t want to spend money on the disc, rent a Neil LaBute movie and you’ll get the idea: Narcissism, self-hate, and codependency make a mean cocktail, and even if you sense some funny ironies in it, nobody’s winking.
On ’96’s Black Love, the Whigs picked up where Gentlemen left off and then ran the wrong way. Where the earlier record hung together as a song cycle, offering hushed, song-length breaks between the soul-exploding crescendos, every song on Love tried to be hugeand, as 1965 affirms, the Whigs’ strength musically is nuance. Unlike Holewhose leader could teach Dulli a thing or two about self-involvement, not to mention career planningthe Whigs were always too Midwestern to make very believable punk. Recording for Sub Pop couldn’t hide the Cincinnati band’s mainstream radio tastes, and even if the Whigs were hardly as tuneful as Nirvana, their early indie albums begged for polish more than anything Sub Pop released in its heyday.
I’ve always thought that the Whigs were just a Butch Vig or Mutt Lange session away from going platinum, and even though Dulli produced 1965 himself, it’s pretty much what I figure that session would sound like. The strange thing is that I’ve never figured that Dulli, a guy whose bread and butter is overstatement, could be capable of reining in his songcraft. 1965 is strikingly low on shock value; for the most part, the relationship songs seem realistic, not just plausiblea credit to their constructions as much as to their content. Living in New Orleans has obviously opened Dulli’s eyes to traditional song structures, and his use of them makes all those “baby”s sound less dumb and more like part of the formula. “66” is so sinewy I hardly notice that Dulli’s calling his baby, um, rabbit, which rhymes with habit, so there you go.
The end result is the kind of mature product that serious (and semi-serious) pop stars churn out once their popular appeal has run its course: a record that rewards close listening but is too slick ever to ask for it. Entering post-stardom without ever fully leaving obscurity behind is no easy trick, so you’ve got to hand it to the Whigs for making it work. The record’s filled with sharply chiseled pop moves. On “Uptown Again,” a lush “ooh ooh” bridge readies the ear for the chorus, which arrives like a tide and recedes just as quickly. The songs build the way they’re supposed to, starting soft with the promise to get really hard and finally ending up somewhere in betweenlike “Sweet Son of a Bitch,” which climaxes with Dulli whimpering “come on, come on” just soft enough that no one could accuse him of coming on too strong. Perhaps to prove that he’s done with overwrought gestures, Dulli finishes this record with an instrumental, “The Vampire Lanois,” where his younger self would have insisted on a theme-defining coda.
The Whigs’ newfound reticence doesn’t mean that they’ve given up on concepts or that Dulli has lost his taste for psychodrama. The band’s always been more into black pop music than their white-sounding rock records imply. 1965’s inner sleeve contains an R&B Top 30 chart from a time when the Impressions, the Supremes, and the Temptations ruled it, and Dulli continues to write about love as he thinks Motown defined itas an infection, a need, a strength-drainer as much as giver, and, above all, a turn-on.
The Whigs don’t want their interest in black music to go unnoticed. Prince and hiphop covers highlight their often stellar live shows, and on 1965 Dulli name- checks Nas and Gaye. As far as aspiring white funksters go, Dulli’s a credible soul brother. His voice, atonal as it sometimes can be, is a genuine life force, and he’s good at milking sex appeal from the high notes and meaning from that limited vocabulary. But though 1965 is filled with grooves, it doesn’t offer much in the way of butt-swing; the horn chart that closes “John the Baptist” is about as close as the band gets to believable R&B. The music on 1965 isn’t boldly cross-cultural, and it’s not even close to the staccato anti-funk of Helmet or Big Black: It’s only rock ‘n’ roll.CP
The Afghan Whigs play the 9:30 Club Nov. 22.