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The Afghan Whigs – Do To The Beast (Album Review)

Let’s get the obligatory comments out of the way: 16 years is a long time between albums. A child born the day the last studio album from The Afghan Whigs, 1965, was released would reach driving age here in the US this coming October. Front man and undisputed Whigs leader, Greg Dulli, has alluded in interviews to “the legacy” he and his bandmates “are engaging”; despite the length of the layoff and the Whigs’ canonical cult status, though, the break doesn’t seem that long due to Dulli’s continued activity with his other projects, The Twilight Singers and The Gutter Twins, his collaboration with Mark Lanegan. Dulli has also indicated that the Whigs’ return to the studio after an improbable 2012 reunion was a natural next step as The Twilight Singers, originating as a trip-hop/electronica influenced side project, had evolved to a more rock-oriented sound in the vein of the Whigs. This is a bit of a Catch-22 as it blunts not only the onus of history and expectation but also the dramatic “comeback” effect.

Either way – or both – I suspect Dulli isn’t arsed, he just plays and, as tempting as it is to drum up frothy-mouthed anticipation for Do To The Beast, I think it best we listeners approach the album in kind – with an informed, referential ear to the past, not viewing that past as a cop with sirens blaring in the rearview. Last we heard from Dulli & Co, they had fully and flawlessly integrated the gritty and grimy soul on 1998’s 1965 they had been increasingly referencing on prior outings. That having operated as a more hedonistic take on the druggy and violent sexual obsession the band continually explored through that purple patch beginning with 1992’s Congregation, Dulli is sensible enough to recognize musings on “the way you make your ass shake” or self-depictions as a pig with a “dick for a brain” are unseemly and sophomoric for a guy on the doorstep of 50, so Do To The Beast does not pick up where the Whigs left off – not in that manner anyway.

The Afghan Whigs has always been Dulli’s more personal and confessional outlet while The Twilight Singers served as a more abstract and vague channel for his continued ruminations on morality and mortality, spirituality and sexuality. Since Dulli has weathered and aged through his Singers’ material, Do To The Beast is a decidedly more mature venture than the Whigs’ 1990s output, injecting it with a gravity and solemnity commensurate with Dulli’s current station in life. Where the album does pick up in terms of pulling forward any threads of the Whigs’ past is that of the role of denouement to those earlier albums’ headiness and youthful tension. This isn’t to say Do To The Beast is bereft of these qualities – on the contrary, it is chock full of them – but this time around, they exist as part of an endgame.

Lead track “Parked Outside” kicks things off with a lead-footed, pile driver of a riff; it’s straight ahead rock greased in grunge, like a steroid-plumped track left off 1996’s Black Love, but it’s a grand entrance and proof that aging has not begotten mellowing. Dulli shreds his throat raw here but, despite the rambunctiousness, he divulges a sentiment quite at odds with his surroundings and rarely disclosed in Whigs song: “You’re gonna make me / break down and cryyyyyy”. This anguish, conveyed here in red-eyed, red-throated fury, pervades Do To The Beast, giving it its over-arching motif – after all the skirt-chasing and powder sniffing, this is Dulli’s cycle of grief. Stinging with remorse, he croaks, “it kills to watch you love another”, against the bass drum and piano stomp of “It Kills” and ruefully admits, “now you’re gone/and you ain’t coming back”, on the near jangle-pop of “Lost In The Woods”.

After such a layoff recording as The Afghan Whigs, and perhaps in deference to their past, Do To The Beast is fittingly a travelogue of sorts for Dulli. The Twilight Singers’ 2011 Dynamite Steps was arguably the most sonically diverse album Dulli had attached his name to and Do To The Beast deliciously one-ups it. “Parked Outside” and “Royal Cream” are the only bile-filled rockers in the grand Whigs style here, while the band explores exotic, sinister funk on “Matamoros”, breezy, dustbowl acoustics on the Western-tinged “Algiers”, and flavors of foothills folk music on “Can Rova”. Guest vocalist, R&B/soul man Van Hunt, offers a grappling-for-your-soul howl at “It Kills”s climax while Mark McGuire, late of his band Emeralds and one of several guest guitarists filling in for departed original Whig, Rick McCollum, embellishes “The Lottery”s chorus with a flickering, delay-effect riff. In less capable hands, this could all melt into a soupy mess, but Dulli is the unifying force; every Afghan Whigs song sounds like an Afghan Whigs song due simply to his presence.

Each of these environs follows Dulli as he courses forth toward his target – as Dulli has put it, “walked through the neighborhoods of my life” – which is his final stage of grief, one that lies beyond Acceptance…Retribution. Dulli fashions himself a flame in “I Am Fire”, a perfectly ideal destroyer, one that assaults all senses and itself extinguishes after rendering its devastation. On the closer, “These Sticks”, the band pushes every button – thundering toms, wailing horns, swelling strings – building to its dizzying peak, Dulli yowling, “tie these sticks around my heart / be there when it blows apart”; he ends Do To The Beast just as he began it – almost. After the wires are severed and doors slam shut, the last we hear from Dulli is a barely audible murmur, “I’ve come to make you pay”.

Do To The Beast leaves you emotionally wrought. Where Dulli had previously played the sleaze we reveled in living vicariously through, here he has us choking back tears for him, the violent aggressor. The album has an air of closure, the Whigs pull out all their musical stops and Dulli seems to find an end, albeit not the happiest one. Mum’s the word on what the future holds, and it’s hardly fair to speculate just as this album is dropping, but if Do To The Beast is The Afghan Whigs’ final statement, it is a towering one. It may not be the best album this year and it certainly won’t be one of the most influential or contemporary – there are slews of reviews here for those well-deserved albums – but it may rank among the most important.