The past hangs heavy over the Afghan Whigs' music. Late in the '80s, the Cincinnati band concocted a unique brand of heavy guitar rock, more grounded in Motown and Curtis Mayfield than in Black Sabbath. Since their breathtaking 1989 Sub Pop debut, Up in It, they've progressed from straightforward if articulate punk-rock alienation to more subtle examinations of the games men and women play.
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The vicissitudes of love drove the Whigs' first major-label effort, 1993's Gentlemen, a thematic song cycle that married epic fiction to ugly honesty, and might as well have been subtitled Smart Women, Foolish Choices: The Soundtrack. Front man Greg Dulli adopted the persona of a psychic predator full of bottom-of-the-glass bravado who uses his vulnerability as a weapon; the Casanova pose was both pathetic and insidiously attractive. The record was self-lacerating, raw autobiography or a stellar acting job—either way, a breakthrough.
Any follow-up was bound to disappoint. Indeed, 1996's Black Love, on which romantic travail took a back seat to gangster-flick menace, came up short: The Whigs are lovers, not fighters. After a pause for some maneuvering—out of their Elektra contract and into a home at Columbia—the Whigs have returned with a new drummer, Michael Horrigan, a new record, 1965, and a revamped mission: Forget about the bitter home truths of the mating dance, it's time to just get down. 1965 fulfills these lighter and lesser expectations, though it pales in comparison with the band's previous triumphs.
Thanks to Dulli's onstage outrageousness (for a hetero guy whose last public appearance in a gown was probably high-school graduation, he makes a pretty decent drag queen), the Whigs have always torn the roof off during their live shows, coaxing even diehard indie rockers in the crowd to attempt some hip swiveling. Dulli, a former film student, has never made any secret of his devotion to cinematic spectacle (the Whigs' music isn't recorded, it's "shot on location") or his soul-diva obsession (e.g., early-career covers of Dozier/Holland songs popularized by Freda Payne and the Supremes). On 1965, however, the screenplay is less about painful love and more about sexual healing. Capturing the Whigs' onstage cabaret-act tendencies, the music comes complete with crooned French lyrics, heavy breathing, and the sound of cigarettes being lit. You can practically hear Dulli's flicked wrist and tilted pimp hat.
Aiming to be mood music, 1965 makes a virtue out of the artifice that often fell flat on Black Love. Gentlemen, recorded in Memphis, soaked up the former boomtown's faded glory. Likewise, 1965, recorded mostly in New Orleans, is immersed in that city's spooky, decadent, half Southern-gothic, half European feel, abounding in vampires and voodoo.
Musically, the Whigs are as strong as ever, with Rick McCollum's familiar, distinctive guitar and John Curley's bass in fine form. Guests like singer Susan Marshall and the Rebirth Brass Band's Roderick Paulin fill out the artful arrangements, full of woozy strings ("Crazy," "The Slide Song"), rambling piano lines ("66"), operatically sassy back-up vocals ("Somethin' Hot," "Neglekted"), and elegiac horns ("John the Baptist"). The Whigs' penchant for sliding from their own songs into various pop hits during their live hootenannies appears on "Uptown Again," which borrows the intro from Madonna's "Secret."
The lyrics are also familiar—incantations of desire with a malevolent edge. This time out, though, the situation is less bittersweet; the betrayals are yet to come. Having found a niche miming world-weary romanticism, Dulli can now deliver it with a wink on lines like "Baby, you don't know/Just how I lie awake/And dream awhile, about your smile/And the way you make your ass shake." At its best—the slinky come-on "Somethin' Hot" and "Omerta," a 4am "Sympathy for the Devil"style epic named for the Mafia's code of silence—this elegant exhaustion is irresistible. At its worst—the French fried pretension of "Citi Soleil," the Donna Summerish sexual snippet "Sweet Son of a Bitch"—it's at least good for a laugh.
After all the guilt and recrimination riddling the band's previous records, 1965's celebration of the power of love—or at least of lust—makes a nice detour. If the subject is romance's initial thrill and not the dissolution that, in the Afghan Whigs' universe, is sure to follow, you'll find plenty on 1965 to inspire heavy breathing. As a soundtrack for a make-out session, you could do a lot worse.