The early-to-mid 90s, as we all know, was a great time to be an alternative rock band. Whether they took their cues from the doomy metal of Black Sabbath (Alice In Chains), the fluid guitars and sky-scraping melodies of classic rock (Pearl Jam), The Beatles (Oasis), or funk (Red Hot Chili Peppers), it seemed that every bunch of white guys with guitars was getting their share of mainstream success.
The grunge movement took the majority of the limelight, being the unexpected cash-cow it was. It felt like the world couldn't get enough of this sound these Seattle bands were cooking up.
The Afghan Whigs almost got their breakthrough too. 1993's Gentlemen was a record tortured enough to get the demographic we'd now call 'emo kids', rocky enough to appeal to the grunge crowd, and sleazy and sexy enough to pique the interest of people who'd never even touched a guitar band before. They had the critics on their side, too - Gentlemen stood alongside Doggystyle, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Suede, Siamese Dream, and In Utero on most end-of-year polls. They could - perhaps should - have been bigger than Pearl Jam. In retrospect, they sound a hell of a lot more commercial than a band like Soundgarden or Smashing Pumpkins did. And Superunknown and Mellon Collie sold how many copies? They even sound like they'd have more sales potential than Counting Crows, who hit big with August & Everything After that year.
Despite all that, Gentlemen wasn't the commercial success many critics predicted it would be. Underterred, the Whigs returned a little under 3 years later, with Black Love. It was a statement of intent, even more so than Gentlemen. The title was a summary of everything the Afghan Whigs have always been about - not just the band's love of black music, and the way soul and R&B have informed their sound, but the tales Dulli has always told. Love songs, twisted in upon themselves, powered by revenge, pain, and emotional failure, pulled from a blackened heart. This, surely, would be their breakthrough, the record to catapult them into the big leagues. The critics all seemed so sure.
There's a lot that Black Love has in common with Gentlemen. Both start on a somewhat subdued note before getting straight to the point on tracks 2, 3, and 4. Both stick the songs that give their names to Whigs EPs at track 7 (What Jail Is Like on Gentlemen, if you're wondering). Both have a ballad at track 5, and both close with long, epic songs (though Gentlemen's is an instrumental). When it comes to the sequence of the songs, Black Love plays just like Gentlemen Part 2.
The music suggests that, too - at times, Black Love has about the same relationship to Gentlemen as Kill Bill 1 does to Kill Bill 2. In a loose sense, Gentlemen is the emotional side of the story, while Black Love has all the action. As another review puts it, Gentlemen tried to exorcise Dulli's evils, where Black Love revels in them. Sonically, the songs pack more of an obvious punch here, and on some tracks, Dulli's lyrics are cocksure beyond belief. Example? On Going To Town, he sings 'When you say we got hell to pay - don't worry baby, that's okay, I know the boss....' And Honky's Ladder's opening salvo? 'Got you where I want you, mother****er!' It's a totally different tact, but it's just as effective as Be Sweet's celebrated opening line.
That's not always true, mind. Summer's Kiss, which lends its name to the biggest Afghan Whigs fansite on the net, is a lot happier than the rest of the album, as Dulli wistfully pines for a former girlfriend. I find this possibly the album's weakest track, but that's just me. It serves as a break (along with Bulletproof), and in any case, almost ANY song would seem weak placed before Faded.
Black Love falls only just short of Gentlemen on two counts. The first being that I preferred Kill Bill 2 to Kill Bill 1, if you get my meaning. Action is great, especially when told by someone as talented as Dulli, but the come-down, for me, is where the real meat of the story is. I listen to Black Love more, but Gentlemen means more when I hear it. The second being, that Black Love isn't quite as consistent. Night By Candlelight and Summer's Kiss are the culprits. They're not bad songs by any means, and to be fair, they suffer from being placed amongst Honky's Ladder, Bulletproof, and Faded. But in such elevated company, they let the side down a bit. Then again, some say the same is true of Gentlemen's Brother Woodrow/Closing Prayer. But for me, Gentlemen just operates a little better as a full album, even if Black Love narrowly has the better individual songs.
In another world, this would have been an absolutely massive album, and Blame Etc., My Enemy, and Honky's Ladder would have been smash hits. Alas, once again, the Whigs didn't get their breakthrough. And, when you put it in context, maybe that makes sense. Black Love's themes - crime, revenge fantasies, - don't get much success outside hip-hop (and, as an aside, it's a great coincidence that Black Love appeared in the same year as Reasonable Doubt - the lyrics here are easily comparable to Jay-Z's, in their Scorcese-style storytelling and alpha-male boasts). And as much as grunge was the fashion in the early 90s, soul, R&B, and post-punk weren't, and those were crucial elements to the Whigs' sound. Nowadays, in a world where Franz Ferdinand (and even The Strokes) have taken the sound of Television and Gang Of Four and gone mainstream with it, and in which rock bands feel no shame in admitting a love for Jamelia, OutKast, and Beyonce, the Whigs make perfect sense. Ahead of their time? It may be overstating the issue, but in a lot of ways, they were.
Within The Genre (Grunge) - 5/5
Within The Genre (Soul/R&B) - 4/5
Outside The Genre - 4.5/5
The staccato riffing recalls both the Whigs' own Congregation album, and At The Drive-In's Relationship Of Command. There's some sweet Crybaby-drenched lead guitar. This is the most direct rock song on here, and argubaly the most nuts-out thing they ever recorded.
The Whig's funkiest moment? I'd say so. The intro is PURE 70s funk, replete with a string arrangement that belongs on the soundtrack to a spy movie, and a hairy-chested growl from Dulli. It's ruthlessly authentic, to the point where you have to check yourself and remind yourself that this is actually a 90s rock band made exclusively of white people. Throughout the song, each chorus gets heavier and heavier, Dulli screaming louder and louder - 'Blame! Deny! Betray! Divide! A lie! The truth! Which one will I use?'
And just when you hear Summer's Kiss, and think the album's going to end on a whimper, the Whigs unveil the best fuc
king song in their entire repetoire. I don't even know where to start with this song. I'm in awe of it and in love with it. Over 8 minutes in length, it rocks back and forth from beautiful, smoky piano passages to massive, driving choruses, with the grossly under-rated Rick McCullom mixing things up using some slick wah leads. There's a chamber music-inspired string passage thrown in too - it's pure Motown - and it's bookended by the sound of passing trains, which I always find curiously, but deeply, emotional. If truth is told, this is not Dulli's best lyric by any means, but it's delivered with such passion and such conviction that it feels like it anyway.
The Afghan Whigs - Gentlemen (5/5)
Jeff Buckley - Sketches For My Sweetheart the Drunk (4/5)
The Twilight Singers - She Loves You (4/5)