This Time We Go A Little Lower: The Afghan Whigs’ Black Love 25 Years On

In revisiting The Afghan Whigs' 1996 album, Aug Stone speaks to Greg Dulli about its creation, finding not only their masterpiece — exceeding the oft-touted Gentlemen — but also the band's soul record. (Photograph by Danny Clinch)

The Afghan Whigs’ third album Gentlemen is widely regarded as the highlight of their career. It is nowadays spoken of by fans and critics alike as ‘the one to get’ and was even the subject of a Continuum 33 1/3 book. No doubt, it is an album to behold: just try to resist being swallowed into the murky water as Dulli plumbs the depths, reveling in lust, anger, claustrophobia and poisonous attachment, amongst so much other depravity. Gentlemen is an unflinching view of the male psyche dressed up in killer rock & roll and keeping the intensity at eleven. But the band’s 1996 follow-up, Black Love, goes beyond even this awesome achievement. A major step forward in his songwriting, Greg Dulli took all the themes that Gentlemen broached – love, ego, betrayal, revenge, menace, and of course sex – and refined them, upping the ante both musically and lyrically on all. ‘Bathing his path in shining light’, he opened up new possibilities, including that of redemption, a notion scorned on Black Love‘s predecessor.

Dulli recalls, "Gentlemen was very dark and wildly emotional. I was going through a bad time, a time that I wouldn’t wish on anybody. Black Love was an easier record to make. The processes of writing and recording were a little more methodical, going to work and having a good time. Not as torturous as some of the other ones have been. And that one was special, we made it on a farm outside of Seattle. It was a really bucolic time, if I can bust out the word ‘bucolic’ for this interview. A lot of it was recorded on mushrooms. Bruce Pavitt, one of the owners of Sub Pop, gave me a Wonder Bread bag filled with mushrooms and I made my way through that bag during the recording of the record. And everybody played great on it."

Credit must be given to the sheer foundation of John Curley’s bass playing, Rick McCollum’s stylish guitar, and newcomer Paul Buchignani’s driving drums.The fact that it’s so solidly performed is a testament to what a strong unit the Whigs were, and allows us to fully appreciate the material. Black Love is Greg Dulli’s soul record – listen to the fiery storms of ‘My Enemy’, ‘Blame Etc.’, ‘Honky’s Ladder’, ‘Bulletproof’, and the sweet seductions of ‘Crime Scene Part One’, ‘Step Into The Light’, and ‘Faded’. Listen to what he’s singing about and how he sings it. This is soul music.

Soul had always been a big part of who Dulli is, it’s what he grew up listening to and is still inspired by. Soul and hometown Cincinnati set The Whigs apart from their Sub Pop labelmates in the early 90s. Though upon being introduced to The Whigs by way of their 1992 video for Congregation‘s ‘Turn On The Water’, one could not have seen Black Love coming. It was even a shock, though a very welcome one, to receive the Uptown Avondale EP, with its gorgeous cover of Freda Payne’s ‘Band Of Gold’ and minor key rendition of The Supremes’ ‘Come See About Me’ (this playfully sinister modal change giving a good hint to Greg Dulli’s character). The Whigs made these songs their own and Dulli sang them with a passion worthy of their status. For the first time we saw the wide potential of what this band could do.

And then came Gentlemen to blow the doors off. 1993 was certainly the time for such a record, with grunge still going strong and the band making the move from the genre’s epicentre at Sub Pop to major label Elektra. And while not the full-on Whigs version of Stax/Motown that was Uptown Avondale, their latent soul influence was growing more prevalent. Just listen to the sound of ‘Be Sweet’, the raw sorrow of ‘When We Two Parted’, and their magnificent take on Tyrone Davis’ ‘I Keep Coming Back’, thematically fitting in perfectly with the rest of therecord. And if you were seeing them live or keeping up with the bootlegs and b-sides, you’d know Dulli’s penchant for covers, a tradition that would, thankfully, continue.

On February 9th, 1996, the film Beautiful Girls hit cinemas, featuring the band performing Frederick Knight’s ‘Be For Real’ and Barry White’s ‘Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe’. Less than a month later, Black Love would be unleashed. The album title certainly says a lot: with the tormented cries of Gentleman still ringing in one’s ears, those two words whispered you’d be entering familiar, albeit uncomfortable, territory. The darker side of relationships, the bad vibes engendered by them, the ego’s quest for retribution, ready to see a reason for it anywhere. And on hearing the actual sound of the record, with all the soulful hints of the previous years now coming to fruition (‘the essence rare is falling off the vine’, in the words of opener ‘Crime ScenePart One’), the titular phrase offered up a second meaning. That the soul sound of Black Love has always been a part of the Whigs, in their DNA, rather than another attempt by a white band at appropriating black music should be obvious to anyone who’d been paying attention since the beginning.

Dulli weighs in, "I don’t think of anything that I do as appropriating as much as I do appreciating. And being inspired by. Soul music isn’t about the colour of your skin. It’s about the sound. If someone is consciously invading a genre and they can’t pull it off, most people are gonna know that and just steer clear of it."

And besides, there was a much simpler explanation for the title of the record, hidden in plain sight on the album cover. Dulli recalls, "You know, honestly, it came to me because it was my favourite incense when I was a kid. And just as innocently I had my friend Danny (Clinch) photograph a stick of Black Love incense burning on an ashtray. At the same time being very well aware of the symbolism that the title had and the metaphor that it afforded me. But my initial instinct of it was I used to love Black Love when I was a kid. I loved the smell, and I always loved the name. ‘Black’ and ‘love’ are two of the most powerful words in the English language, so there they are brought together."

Whereas Gentlemen is an uncaged beast ‘locking its jaws and swallowing’, Black Love brings a heavy load of self-awareness to that same creature, able now to step back, lick its lips, and take a much wider view. The conscience that couldn’t be found on ‘Debonair’ had been resurrected, believing itself mostly in the right and ready to be held accountable for its actions. Although retribution is on the cards, the recognition of trouble and a fervent desire to escape it all play just as much a part in this game. ‘Crime Scene Part One’ combines all these themes beautifully – "stick it to my enemies tonight, and then I disappear". The gorgeous organ intro, lingering for over a full minute before the song proper kicks in, sums up the record in its entirety. It is commanding, will not be rushed as it builds, letting the beauty appear of its own accord. Dulli is in charge here, over all the negativity, and thus able to use it to bring forth these excellent songs rather than be used by it.

Lyrical motifs a la Gentlemen‘s repeated, "And it don’t bleed and it don’t breathe…" weave in and out, set in motion by ‘Crime Scene’s "bathe my path in shining light" and "a lie, the truth, which one shall I use?" ‘Crime Scene’ also contains one of those perfect little moments in songs, here with Dulli’s delivery of "And if you knew, just how smooth, I could stop it on a dime" showing a wish to, in the midst of all this life-altering calamity, have it be just a little more romantic.

Up next is ‘My Enemy’, and contrary to what he sang on the previous album, the fury in Dulli’s voice shows that indecision is no longer a problem. He’s now completely focused, and the enemy has moved from a state of mind to very real physical characters. The depth of Black Love‘s songwriting, too, is echoed in its layers of production, with ‘Double Day’, ‘Going To Town’, and ‘Honky’s Ladder’ all sounding like they are the next step forward from Gentlemen‘s dirty barbed rock & roll.

‘Double Day’ (Black Love‘s only co-write, with guitarist Rick McCollum) is still firmly in the grips of revenge and paranoia, but is artfully told. "I came home early drunk with love, and other things, I must confess I love it all" as well as other lines – "What I’m not allowed to have I never could refuse" (‘Blame Etc.’) and "If you tell me don’t get mixed up with the devil, that’s exactly what I’m gonna do" (‘Honky’s Ladder’) – are at odds with ‘Crime Scene’s notion of saying "goodbye to everything that thrills me". It’s this pull between oblivions that gives the album a great part of its tension. At ‘Double Day’s finish, Greg returns to the idea of being alone, first touched on in ‘Crime Scene’. Solitude and what it affords him also being reflected upon in ‘Step Into The Light’ and ‘Summer’s Kiss’. He’s no longer a solo assassin out only to inflict and satisfy his lusts, but an individual seeking light in order to view the situation fully and, with any grace, find a few moments of contemplation. ‘Blame Etc.’ heads straight back out looking for company, full of delusions of immortality. ‘Blame’ and ‘Going To Town’ are the most R&B flavoured tunes on the album and they sure do groove. With Stevie Wonder-inspired electric piano, the Whigs would merge ‘Superstition’ with ‘Going To Town’ in their live show (as heard on the promo EP Live At The Howlin’ Wolf, New Orleans) and would pursue this sound further on their next full-length, 1965. In between these two stompers lies the lovely ‘Step Into The Light’, a tune that almost didn’t make the record.

Dulli remembers, "One of my oldest and best friends, Donal (Logue, actor), convinced me I had to put it on. I didn’t see a place in the material at the time for ‘Step Into The Light’. It was a song that I would just play for myself. Donal was a big fan of that song and he strongly urged me to record and include it. I’m really glad that I did." It’s also in the perfect position on the album, a pause for reflection after the storm of the first four songs and preceding the intensity of the next two. ‘Light’, the idea of some form of, if not full redemption, then at least temporary release, is all over Black Love, contrasting nicely with the night shade of the title and otherwise heavy themes.

Asking Greg about the film noir aspect that is often associated with the album, he offers: "The dark and the light, the sin and salvation, the misunderstood, the seedy, revenge, paranoia, those things were… I don’t wanna call it a phase I was going through, it was a form I was immensely attracted to at the time. I was immersed in reading a lot of Ellroy, watching Blood Simple. Visually, Hollywood Babylon, Weegee photographs, these were just things that I was interested in then and it all influenced me. And when we did the packaging of the record, I explained these things to Danny Clinch and we made a little picture book of the sounds. But there was no Black Love movie ever. I’m always confused exactly how this rumour came about, because I was working on a script at the time but for a completely different project. I had read a book called Spoken In Darkness by Ann Imbrie and bought the film rights to it. I had a film clause in the Whigs contract for me to make a film, any film, and I certainly was interested in scoring it. But Black Love is not the score to Spoken In Darkness."

The singles follow. ‘Going To Town’s "When you say, now we got hell to pay, don’t worry baby that’s okay, I know the boss" is a cool line for sure, delivered thusly, but it also shows the roots of the record, reminding us that the power of these songs would not have been possible without the nightmare of Gentlemen. And ‘Honky’s Ladder’? It’s just cool as fuck, straight from that memorable opening line – "I got you where I want you motherfucker, I got five up on your dime." It mines the similarly rich vein of ‘My Enemy’ where the loaded rock of the verse blasts off into a magnificently expansive chorus. ‘Night By Candlelight’ isn’t a song you’d listen to on its own out of the context of the album, but it’s a necessary part of the continuum, acting as a meditation on the record as a whole.

A high percentage of their 2012 reunion shows had them opening with ‘Crime Scene Part One’ and closing with the record’s final three numbers – ‘Bulletproof’, ‘Summer’s Kiss’, and ‘Faded’. Contrary to Gentlemen‘s rampage for self-satisfaction, even the bad vibes on Black Love have been corralled into a quest for some sort of salvation. Whereas Gentlemen is a film that leaves you full of dubious guesses with respect to the fate of its narrator, Black Love is an often tortuous climb culminating in a possibility of redemption.

And this possibility comes in the closing three songs. Indeed, the redemption is the final three songs themselves. The groove is strong on ‘Bulletproof’. There is a noticeable shift towards the possibility of love. To describe it as ‘positive’ would be too much of a stretch, but it is a move in the right direction. And the chorus of "every time I dream about you baby", so full of passion, is one of Greg’s best recorded vocal takes. While the Stevie Wonder influence is easy to hear on ‘Going To Town’, for ‘Summer’s Kiss’, being one of this writer’s all-time favourite songs, I was very surprised to hear of its origins.

Dulli informed me "I wrote ‘Summer’s Kiss’ on an acoustic guitar at my house in Seattle. It was my attempt at writing a Who song. So if you didn’t hear that, that’s great. A lot of times I’ll set out to do something and you would never know that that’s what I was setting out to do. But listen to it again, and listen to the solo." ‘Summer’s Kiss’ declares: "Demons be gone!", throwing off the ‘chains’ detailed from ‘Crime Scene’ on, and stepping out fully In Love. It is one excellent pop song. ‘Faded’ is the perfect closer. Sure, there are still doubts, though they’re now voiced by a man who "knows himself so well", who has earned knowing the score along with the right to still desire a winning outcome despite the odds. It’s the path bathed in enough candlelight to pull one through until morning; the walk out of it all at film’s end. And luckily for us, the original demo appears on the new edition’s bonus disc.

Dulli says: "’Faded’ I wrote in Cincinatti at John Curley’s studio. I remember everybody left and I had an idea and stayed way into the morning. That song started out on an electric piano and I changed the words along the way. It had different opening lines, which were pretty cool to listen to again."

"And looking and listening back at these extra pieces," Dulli explains, referring to the previously unreleased song ideas included on the new bonus disc, "it was all very ambitious. I was building towards some sort of Quadrophenia type thing. ‘Leaving Town’, ‘Going To Town’, it had motifs, and very cinematic set pieces, like ‘Staring Across The Water’. Eventually we just streamlined it and went for the eleven tracks that comprise the record."

So what does Greg think of the album as a whole, and the idea that it’s the peak of The Whigs? "A lot of times I’m urged to put the records in competition with each other and I don’t bite. It’s just different, you know. 1965 is different. And the first Twilight Singers record was a very strong pivot. I have great affection for Black Love. I have great affection for all of them in their own way. They’re all a bunch of special moments out of my life. I usually work on records for a year or two, so you get pretty intimate with them. I’m immensely proud of Black Love. I stand behind it, still love the songs, it’s one of my favourite records I’ve ever done. I think it’s a really consistently thorough and exciting record. And I still love playing the songs off it which is probably the best review I could give of anything."

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