MANNERS FROM HEAVEN
WHEN POLITICIANS govern by soundbite, and a three-minute slot on MTV can have the equivalent cultural impact of Citizen Kane, it should come as no surprise that the generation’s New Men are reduced to wearing dresses in order to assert their sensitive credentials. The fact that Kurt Cobain and Evan Dando happen to look ridiculous in a frock cannot be lost on Greg Dulli, a man so preoccupied with the maleness of men and the un-maleness of women he’s filled four albums with increasingly poetic discourse on the subject. Always distinct from their US neo-punk contemporaries, Dulli’s Afghan Whigs have now trumped the lot of them.
Gentlemen is the logical conclusion to a process the Whigs started to undergo after 1990’s faintly generic Sub Pop debut Up In It. Out went the heavy-handed grunge dollops, deftly substituted with a syrupy new rock patent born out of Dulli’s pronounced Motown fixation and the band’s increasing ease with being their own men. Last year’s Congregation, however, was the New Model Whigs’ breakthrough, consolidated by an EP of soul covers and Gentlemen, their brilliant, satisfying refinement.
“I have an oppressive conscience,” Greg told the NME at the dawn of 1993, “and if I’ve done something to wrong someone, most likely a woman, the guilt factor becomes almost more than I can take”. Gentlemen is one long guilt purge. Beginning with a blast of chill wind, it wires one man’s over-burdened conscience to the fissile guitar heroics of Rick McCollum and a bludgeoning rhythm section, flailing, grasping, pleading for answers. Unusually for his generation, Dulli actually has some: “And it don’t bleed, and it don’t breathe/It’s locked its jaws and now it’s swallowing/It’s in our heart, it’s in our head/It’s in our love, baby, it’s in our bed…”
So runs the refrain to the ghostly opener ‘If I Were Going’, which gets reprised later in the unhinged and groovy ‘Debonair’. The agenda is plain: resolving the urges of the body with the subtleties of human interaction constantly vexes Dulli. He wants to do the right thing, but like he says on ‘Be Sweet’, “I got a dick for a brain/And my brain is gonna sell my ass to you”.
Ultimately, he’s under no illusions as regards his prospects for self-improvement: “Tonight I go to hell/For what I’ve done to you/This ain’t about regret/It’s when I tell the truth”. Here’s a man who still believes honesty is the best part of valour.
Crucially, the Whigs now have the musical dexterity to match Dulli’s clotted diary jottings. It all falls perfectly into place on ‘My Curse’, a beautiful strung-out account of a consumptive relationship where Greg’s voice is notable by its absence, replaced by the yearning huskiness of Scrawl’s Marcy Mays. If you don’t shiver as she sings, “And there’s blood on my teeth when I bite my tongue to speak/Zip me down, kiss me there”, one can only conclude someone has cut out your heart and fed it to the dog.
The sole cover is ‘I Keep Coming Back’, originally rendered by Tyrone Davis, whose decision to eschew the macho soul man persona probably prevented him from crossing over on a mass scale like his early ’70s Chicago contemporaries.
If the Afghan Whigs suffer a similar fate then there truly will be no justice. Right now, though, Gentlemen towers above all others.
© Keith Cameron, New Musical Express, 9 October 1993