Review Summary: Begin the slow pan
Greg Dulli, famed fatalistic louche extraordinaire, is many things but above all else a master of pacing. The spectral ballads that make up what is being marketed as his solo debut (there seems to be some confusion here, with 2005 effort Amber Headlights
being left in the cold for whatever reason) surge with an inexplicable intensity and headlong momentum that seems counter-intuitive on paper but proves intoxicating in execution. Random Desire
is a hermetically sealed snowglobe of textures and trysts, a reeling off of hopelessness and heartbreak buffeted by skittering drums and shadowy piano. It stands quite heavily in contrast to his main gig in beloved and resurgent 90's alt-rock heroes The Afghan Whigs, who find themselves in another period of inactivity cruelly forced by the untimely death of guitarist Dave Rosser. Staging a strong comeback with 2014's gnarled and grungy Do To The Beast
and 2017's spooky and shambolic In Spades
, Greg Dulli slipped right back into his role as misanthropic lothario like a well-worn glove. Random Desire
is a downturn into a decidedly more forlorn and reflective mode, finding the singer honing a not altogether unexplored but still relatively rare aspect of his songwriting, more akin to the dewy melancholy of The Twilight Singers than anything the Whigs released in their tragically short resurrection.
Ironically enough, the album doesn't make the best first impression. 'Pantomima', while not an entirely weak track overall, is a head-scratching curtain drop; unabashedly jaunty to the point of being on the knive's edge of cloying, it stands in stark contrast to just about every song that follows. Needling guitar jabs and prancing drums are married to a curiously chipper vocal performance that gives off the impression that the album could go just about anywhere sonically. However, the subtly twangy and wholly gorgeous 'Sempre' follows and properly sets the mood for what is to follow. Acoustic guitar and somber keys lightly hold ground against Dulli's powerful rasp and slippery falsetto until galvanizing drums and sheets of scraping electric guitar upstrokes seamlessly enter, quickening the song's pace to a graceful gallop. This is where Random Desire
operates for the majority of its contemplative and affecting runtime: stark and nocturnal soundscapes elegantly adjoined to impassioned vocals and sophisticated but subtly raucous dynamics. Seamless is the name of the game here; the unobtrusive way that Dulli is able to make these seemingly contradictory moods come off as entirely natural is nothing short of masterful.
These tracks are able to unpretentiously build to varying levels of surprising intensity, yielding a number of hypnotic and poignant highlights. 'Scorpio' begins with romantic piano and yearning synth before being joined by loping drums that lead to a plateau of urgently ascendant guitar and and warped vocals. 'It Falls Apart' seems to draw influence from The National's playbook circa Boxer-High Violet
, with a snaking piano melody and jazzy drums being blanketed in yawning strings and ghostly handclaps. 'The Tide' is an endlessly cresting outpouring of rousing vocals and walls of shimmering guitar that culminates in a chorus of gorgeously cracked Dulli vocals and plaintive keys. The real standout, however, is deep cut 'Lockless'. Expanding on Dulli's always latent R&B influences, it rides a mesmerizing beat of dancing hi-hats and swanky horns, an exquisitely miserable slice of regret that comes off like a vaguely grimy rendition of recent Patrick Watson or latter day Antlers. It's utterly beguiling and serves as the climax of the album, and rightfully so, but the album does seem to buckle a little bit under its weight. 'Black Moon' is a more than worthy epilogue, especially in it second half of classic rock guitar theatrics and pleading crooning, but can't help but ever so slightly pale in comparison. Closer 'Slow Pan' is somewhat of an unfortunate misfire in the same vein of 'Pantomima'; it is the most sonically threadbare track until it's overwhelmed with cascades of staccato strings. There's an interesting contrast at play as the almost Disney-esque harp plays at a happy ending that the lyrics resolutely reveal as a mirage, but it's much more interesting on paper than in execution, leaving the song feeling both truncated and aimless. Then again, maybe that's exactly the point, random desires and ravishing regrets left to hang in the air, another sordid star in the comprehensive constellation of Greg Dulli's decades-long heartbreak. Whatever the intention, Random Desire
shines bright enough as a whole to leave a lasting impact in an increasingly unpredictable and accomplished body of work.