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Afghan Whigs: Songs Of Love Gone Wrong, Done Right

Greg Dulli at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City Wednesday night.
Dominick Mastrangelo
Greg Dulli at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City Wednesday night.

In the midnight hours after the Afghan Whigs brought down the Bowery Ballroom Wednesday night, I got an email from my date for the show. "I feel like I stole something that was so good," he wrote. Mind you, ours was an innocent tryst. We were just old college friends out to catch the rebound of some stars of our youth. But the deeply embodied complexities of a great Afghan Whigs show always feel illicit. The music's sexual pull and the cruel urges uncovered in the lyrics doing something that rock — 1990s alternative rock, anyway, with its progressive sheen and its homosocial core — wasn't supposed to do.

"We're from the future, where the present is the past," Dulli quipped after the band set a furious mood with the opening song, "Crime Scene, Part 1." Cynicism has always been a defense mechanism for this most over-sharing of '90s rock frontmen, but his comment hints at a deeper truth. The Afghan Whigs feel relevant now in ways that some of their peers cannot. It's because of what they do musically, and how Dulli rides the band's blend of R&B insinuation, hip-hop cool and hard rock invasiveness into corners of experience where few rockers of his generation have rested.

I am talking about sex, the subject matter of nearly every Afghan Whigs song. Spiteful sex, irresistible sex, sinful, heartbreaking, just plain wrong sex. Romanticized it is — but not in the usual way of pop songs, even sad ones. Whigs songs call up the spirit of sex (one early great they performed Wednesday is called "Conjure Me") in its demon form, as a force grounded in weakness and confusion rather than pleasure and hope.

Wrong sex has its own canon, from classic novels like Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier to noir films like Double Indemnity to recent art house offerings like Steve McQueen's Shame. In music, it's the farthest point on the spectrum that connects romantic bliss to longing, a desolate territory where artists go beyond the hope of seduction. This is women's ground, mostly — masters include the Billie Holiday of "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" and the Etta James of "I'd Rather Go Blind" — though men do get there when they have the courage to face the violence sexism ingrains in them. Greg Dulli has studied this stuff: The Whigs are always covering songs of car-wreck heartbreak, whether in their current single, or in the Drake and Frank Ocean tunes they touched upon at the Bowery Ballroom.

What made the Whigs version of wrong sex so powerful is that it served as an intervention. Dulli's willingness to speak about the poison habits people can cultivate in pairs wouldn't have been as notable if he were working in any genre but underground-to-alternative rock. In that scene, a strange kind of boys' club where left-leaning social and political attitudes often stood in for the personal work that makes one a better lover and friend, Whigs songs — and especially Gentlemen, a concept album about a one relationship's loop of failure that's as brutal as Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear — spoke necessary truths. We were all inflicting and enduring these wounds in private, even as we wore our Rock For Choice T-shirts to concerts where boys in dresses declared us all better than the patriarchal status quo.

The Afghan Whigs came from somewhere else, literally. Dulli and his bandmates — two original members, the guitarist Rick McCollum and the bassist John Curley, are back with him now — grew up in Cincinnati, a border town between the Midwest and the South, and were the first band from outside the Pacific Northwest to sign to '90s rock flagship label Sub Pop. Their ragged rock incorporated black pop sounds in the same way their peers employed metal or hardcore punk.

The fantasies Dulli played out weren't just about crossing sexual lines; they were grounded in musical race-crossing that could have easily turned into minstrelsy (on the band's downward slope, it did — they're not doing " Honky's Ladder" on this current tour, and that's a good thing). But for some reason — maybe because of Dulli's hyper-intelligent self-policing or the fact that this band's sweet spot is in a churn that requires metal-edged chord progressions and British punk drums along with McCollum's Curtis Mayfield-style guitar licks and Curley's Muscle Shoals-influenced bass playing — the Afghan Whigs were always able to remain conscious in their own skins. At the Bowery Ballroom on Wednesday night, Dulli fulfilled the role of nightmare boyfriend, bursting the bubble of romance that none of us could properly float anyway, while the music pointed toward the vital worlds that indie and alternative rock mostly shut out: the seedbed of all rock, the forgotten paternal line, African-American music.

Now, what's left of that kind of rock wallows in those classic soul and funk sounds, as well as in collaborations with artists like Ocean, who have proven themselves as "progressive" and "arty" as any rocker who ever got a neck tattoo. I believe that if the Whigs were 20 years younger, they'd have a chance at the top of today's charts. Their blend is so right that it could revive rock — especially with the electronic elements that Dulli's imported from his now veteran Twilight Singers project. But elder bands rarely get the chance to become pop stars again. Instead, I can hope that this late-coming victory lap confirms the Afghan Whigs' central place in rock's complicated history, as the band who laid a generation's hardest hidden realities at our feet.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.
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