When The Afghan Whigs reformed in 2012, the band found themselves in an unfamiliar place. They were the returning heroes —one of the last big early-'90s alt-rock bands to cash in on classic indie-rock nostalgia— of the summer festival set, standing high atop bills and being feted for past greatness.
All this stood in direct comparison to how they were perceived during the '90s, when the Afghan Whigs were one of a succession of grunge-era Next Big Things that never got big, when their critical plaudits never pushed them beyond their middle-tier status, and when the band's fans were a fervent following defined, in many ways, by an inferiority complex.
In an era in which the Whigs' Sub Pop peers —like, most obviously, Nirvana and Soundgarden— became huge corporate success stories, Greg Dulli and crew grew to be defined by how they, in spite of excellent reviews and ardent admirers and major-label marketing, never made it to the big time.
In the minds of Afghan Whigs acolytes, never was this lack of commercial success never more criminal —never more a miscarriage of justice— than with the major-label debut, 1993's Gentlemen. The album found Dulli —the band's howling-voiced frontman— authoring a sustained narrative in which the narrator finds it impossible to stay faithful to his long-suffering partner, crawling through an on and off-again relationship in grimy, salacious, painful detail.
It's a sordid album-long confession delivered with a deliberate cinematic sweep; a cute credit on the record saying it was "Shot on Location at Ardent Studios." In short: it was a concept album, at a time in which no one was making concept albums; the Afghan Whigs thumbing their nose at the era's prevailing air of sarcastic slackerdom, and then, in some ways, suffering accordingly.
Secrets and Lies
Just as Dinosaur Jr once dubbed their grungy sound as "ear-bleeding country," you could call the Afghan Whigs "ear-bleeding soul" (especially given "What Jail is Like" sounds particularly Dinosaur-ish). Though the guitars of Dulli and lead Rick McCollum were steeped in the souped-up distortion and harsh angularity of the alternative-rock era, the singer was a student of classic soul music and R&B; something that, whilst brought to the fore on 1998's 1965, was merely permeating deep circa Gentlemen.
What Dulli had learnt most from old soul was the way masculinity could be played as simultaneous blessing and curse; the way it could make for cocksure swaggering but be a kind of relationship poison. He'd learnt that baring one's soul wasn't something embarrassing —as grunge's rampant culture of sarcasm and irony had made it— but something that an audience could connect to. Of course, whether this is Dulli cataloguing his own litany of failures or, more likely, authoring a narrative is immaterial; the fact that it sounds so deep and personal makes it play so universal.
"What should I tell her?/She's going to ask," Dulli growls, as the album's opening couplet, immediately drawing the listeners directly into the fray. "If I Were Going" sets the table with a swirling atmospheric and a plaintive tone to the crunchy guitars, introducing a lyrical motif —"It's in our love, baby, it's in our bed" that returns, again, in the funky, screeching "Debonair." And just as the opener finds the rumination "still I think she believes me/every word I say," the sentiment is met, and reconsidered, in the temporary parting of the pained ballad "When We Two Parted," where Dulli smirks "Didn't I do a good job of pretending?"
The real stroke of genius is "My Curse," when the narration suddenly shifts to the viewpoint of the woman scorned; though, in Marcy Mays drawling voice and the resigned lyrics, it's more a case of a woman defeated. It's a smart storytelling gesture that brings Gentlemen more in line with literary works than recorded ones. Meaning, for all those times the record is super-'90s-sounding in an unflattering way, the lyrical craft allows it to rise above.
Record Label: Elektra
Release Date: October 5, 1993