Review Summary: The best album Greg Dulli has written in almost fifteen years.
Confessions of a megafan: it's good to know that, over half a decade strong into the cynicism of adulthood, there are still some artists out there that can make you feel as excited as you did when you were fourteen years old, waiting for one of your three or four favourite bands to come out with something new. Greg Dulli, for me, is one such artist; even in a month that seemed to be swamped in exciting new albums, the release of Dynamite Steps
had me scrambling around the internet looking for previews. It was work that paid off when I came across my first taste of new Twilight Singers material since 2006 in the shape of the dark, frantic "Waves".
"Waves" is an excellent song, probably the best I've heard so far this year; yet, it left me feeling a little apprehensive about this album. Even though Greg Dulli hasn't released a bad album in almost two decades now, some of them have been better than others, and the less impressive ones have all bought individual tracks to the table that have been among his best. "Waves", for that reason, reminded me most closely of "Idle Hands", the lead single from The Gutter Twins' Saturnalia
- a very good album that, in hindsight, made you think more about Dulli's other, better albums than about its own strengths. The same, bizzarely, was true of their cover of Massive Attack's "Live With Me", on the A Stitch in Time
EP, which harked back to both 2004's covers album She Loves You
and the Afghan Whigs EP Uptown Avondale
. As great as "Waves" is, I had suspicions that this might be the lineage it would fit into.
One listen to Dynamite Steps
was enough for those fears to be dispelled. This is the best thing Dulli has put his name to since The Afghan Whigs disbanded.
It's tempting to say that the big stories of Dynamite Steps
are the rise of the piano to centre stage at the expense of guitars, and a move toward embracing electronic sounds. Both are things Dulli has flirted with before, but neither has ever borne out across a full album. It's a smartly handled move, as the second half of "Last Night in Town" shows when it blends electronic influences into the sound established on Powder Burns
, not to mention the gorgeous likes of "Get Lucky" and the title track. Yet the more telling shift here isn't in style, but in mood. Powder Burns
, with tracks like "I'm Ready" and "Forty Dollars", showed Dulli's songwriting shift its focus from both sex to love, and from darkness and resignation to something approaching happiness. Dynamite Steps
reverses that move, and does so emphatically, pulling the band right back into the territory that Dulli operated in when The Afghan Whigs wrote their two classics, Gentlemen
and Black Love
. It's Black Love
, specifically, that seems to be the biggest touchstone for this album, certainly in focus if not sound. Even the structure seems similar, with "Dynamite Steps" his best album closer since "Faded"; not co-incidentally, the last time he attempted a song like this to close with.
Thanks to Dulli's experience with these topics and this mood, he's got the ability to write an album that both makes it strengths obvious at first, and also get better and better with each listen; and that's exactly what Dynamite Steps
does. It's been a long time since I've heard an album that truly justifies the tag 'grower' the way this one does; songs like "Get Lucky" and the folky "Blackbird and the Fox" only register as good songs on the first listen, but they become great with time, while the thrills of "Waves", "Last Night in Town", and "Dynamite Steps" don't wear off.
Even for somebody that's obsessed over the details of Greg Dulli's career, and even for somebody who predicted the direction that this album would take four years ago (see my Powder Burns
review), I'm astonished at just how good it is. Both for Dulli as an artist, and me as a fan, the borders may be wider but the thrill remains the same - this is dark, cynical, sexy, and genuinely moving with it, and that's a combination potent enough to make this an outside bet for rock album of the year.