The Afghan Whigs’ ‘Black Love’ Is a Goddamn Classic
The word "classic" gets thrown around so much lately. In the world of music, it's used in hushed tones and reserved for records like Pet Sounds, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath or Forever Changes. We say that is bullshit. While there should be a reverence for those albums, it’s equally as important to recognize the greatness that happens around us every single day. That’s why we're proposing the canonization of new records with our new series Goddamn Classic, which goes out and nominates records that may be off the beaten path, but deserve another look from the world.
Gentlemen! What a record! “I got a dick for a brain, and my brain is gonna sell my ass to you.” Greg Dulli just oozes sleaze and cruelty. Or his persona does. Or, maybe he and the persona were (and are) one and the same. Some dweebs are still hemming and hawing over the “problematic” lyrics 24 years later (god forbid we let a vindictive break-up album about somebody we never met be a vindictive break-up album about somebody we never met — or interpret the whole thing as a satire of male bravado). All that said, I submit that Gentlemen is not the Afghan Whigs’ finest moment. Just ask Dulli himself. Nope, it’s the epic 1996 follow-up, Black Love, which predictably failed to elevate the Cincinnati outfit to, well, whatever Elektra considered The Next Level in 1996. (I dunno, opening for Bush?)
Wikipedia tells us: “Prior to this album’s release, lead singer Greg Dulli seriously explored producing a movie in the film noir genre, but despite his optioning at least one book, the movie was never made. Dulli's ideas for a soundtrack led to the songs recorded on this album.” That would explain the titling of opening salvo “Crime Scene: Part 1” and “My Enemy” (incidentally one of the best, most dynamic one-two punches in a decade rich with killer “alternative” concept albums). But yeah, that bit of trivia makes sense – these 11 songs could have eventually soundtracked 1998’s Dark City, if Dark City wasn’t so mega-goth. Instead, the band appeared in 1996’s Beautiful Girls, in which Timothy Hutton earned the dubious distinction of playing the second grown man to have a just slightly inappropriate relationship with pre-teen Natalie Portman in the last three years. (Okay, maybe “sleazy” music was totally appropriate in this case.)
Anyway, while Gentlemen is a tight succession of anti-love songs of roughly the same length, Black Love is all over the place in theme, tone and timbre, yet transcends its predecessor due to impeccable sequencing. The triumphant romantic climax of the aforementioned “Crime Scene” just fucking erupts into the staccato romp of “My Enemy.” From there, it’s a roller coaster of carnality, elation, regret and bittersweet introspection. Leadoff single “Honky’s Ladder” was menacing and sensual at a time when indie rock wanted nothing to do with sex. The funked-up, organ-fueled “Going to Town” (“When they say we got hell to pay, don’t worry, baby, that’s okay — I know the boss” ... ROWR!) is an instant classic that was sadly rehashed into the desperate, would be radio-pop that permeated disappointing 1998 follow-up 1965. As for grand finale “Faded,” sweet Christ. Only the most hatefully cynical tumbling dickweed wouldn’t be moved by the raw outburst of emotion (which slyly mirrors, then somehow one-ups the opener).
Black Love isn’t exactly the ambitious crime noir Dulli initially envisioned. It's much more. The only crime is — perfectly acceptable recent Sub Pop comeback albums notwithstanding — that an audience took way too long to emerge for the Whigs’ last bona fide classic.