YEAH, BUT what are you gonna do about the Afghan Whigs? Here’s this band from Ohio that sprung up right around the same time as all those other bands that cropped up like herbicide-resistant weeds in the wake of Nevermind -- you know who I mean: Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Smashing Pumpkins -- and seemed, if the amount of bank that appeared to be getting pumped into their cover-artwork alone was any indicator, headed to the same well-deserved cultural grave in which history was and still is going to bury all of them. I remember seeing half-page ads for Gentlemen in Rolling Stone; to me they were entirely indistinguishable from the ads for Jar of Flies, an album by the aforementioned oxygen thieves called Alice in Chains. One look at those ads and I knew that I didn’t need any of that, thanks. It wasn’t as though I had to go very far out of my way to ignore the Afghan Whigs. I just had to stay put.

My wife, though, whose taste is generally unimpeachable, always got this certain tone in her voice when mentioning the Afghan Whigs -- a tone which was recognizably one not only of the affection one has, say, for Kiss, but of the respect which one reserves for rock bands who seem actually in the business of accomplishing something, like, for example, New Order around the time of Low-Life. Other folks in the midwest whose opinions I had no reason to hold suspect assented, their consensus being that whatever you might think of any individual album, you had to give it up for the Afghan Whigs, whose project was so obviously interesting as to render any argument on the subject petty.

This seemed as odd to me as it would have if these people had been saying: “Oh, sure, everybody’s got differences of opinion, but the one thing we can agree on is the greatness of Mother Love Bone.” Being stubborn, it took me a while to shake myself free of biases I’d formed without bases and to actually sit down with an Afghan Whigs album. I waited until a few months after the release of Black Love, the follow-up to Gentlemen, and then I listened to it in the front of the second Ajax store, down Chicago Avenue toward the Cabrini-Green. They had a nice set of speakers in there. Chris Butler was in his black knit cap reading a magazine at the counter. I was the only other person in the store. It was winter.

As they say in the charismatic churches: Jesus Christ.

Black Love was a roaring, lurching belch of rage and well-placed slide guitar, and it was so good as to demand immediate reevaluation of the entire Afghan Whigs question. I was urged by anybody who had any opinion on the subject to pick up Gentlemen, about which I’ll have more to say later. In the file cabinet of my brain I moved the Afghan Whigs from the big fat who-cares file into the very slim mainstream-rock-band-worth-listening-for-news-of folder, and that, more or less, was that, since I’d done so just in time for the music world as a whole to decide that this entire rock-and-roll renaissance was really only about Kurt Cobain after all. Black Love got the good reviews it deserved and the low profile it probably wanted, which was a mixed blessing: on the whole, as I’ve said, it was a tremendous and beautiful album, but it was not without its problems. What it was attempting lyrically was a few grades above the tools it had at hand. Song by song it was magnificent; every song on it can hold its own against any and all comers. Taken as a piece, though, it grated a bit, and it was always reminding you that it was meant to be received as a single work -- certain key phrases were repeated every few songs in order to drive the point home, and for those of us who don’t need to be told how to read, it was annoying. It tried a little too hard to hold together as an album addressing a single theme, which is a doomed effort unless you’re Jarvis Cocker, and its theme was the malleability of truth, a subject which I don’t find even mildly interesting. It deserved better than it got -- its closing movement, a trio of songs that take up the last twenty minutes of the album, is an act of great beauty in a dull, grey world, and we should all be grateful for it -- but it still wasn’t as good as what it was shooting for. It got a B-plus for execution and an A for effort. People who had neither the time nor inclination to sort out what it was lacking just ignored it, though, and ignored it so loudly that the end-result is that when I say “this new Afghan Whigs album is really great,” anybody listening is likely to say: “Who?”

The Afghan Whigs, God damn you, that’s who. They’re from Ohio. Their new album is called 1965. It is forty-one minutes’ worth of hallucinatory preaching at the altar of a God Whose preacher makes you pay up front before you get a good look at Him, and then he hurries you out before you’re quite sure of what it was you saw. It’s getting great reviews from all the usual suspects, but they’re showing the video on M2, not MTV, which guarantees that nobody’s ever going to see it. That’s OK. The video (for the album’s opener, “Somethin’ Hot,” which is a very nearly perfect song) isn’t very good anyway, and this in itself is another reason to like the band; one of the most charming things about an Afghan Whigs record is that the visual form the music’s geared toward isn’t video. It’s film. They’ve been saying as much themselves at least since Gentlemen, opting for constructions like “shot on location in Memphis” over “recorded at Jimmy’s place.” Whether this is indicative of a real aesthetic or drama club preciousness is for you to decide, though the Whigs’ whole-piece approach to albums tends to suggest the former.

What’s not open to question is that the Afghan Whigs, with 1965, pool all their resources and come up with a shining jewel of a record that covers all the bases. It’s as intentional as their previous efforts, but it swings with a playful, lilting self-assurance. It succeeds in coming off as genuinely soulful, a feat the Whigs have been trying to pull off since their 1993 EP What Jail Is Like. Like Black Love and Gentlemen before it, 1965 is thematically focused; it seems to have a cast of characters, and it seems to be moving toward a conclusion. Unlike Black Love, however, 1965 doesn’t care whether you figure out the story or not, and lest there be any mistake about it, this is a huge plus. Being told what’s going on in an album that’s shooting for conceptual unity is like having to watch one of those movies-for-the-blind where there’s a narrator describing all the physical action between the lines of dialogue -- all props to the blind, but those of us who can see don’t want the play-by-play, because the play-by-play gets in the way. (Just ask anybody who’s ever tried to watch any sporting event ill-starred enough to be called by Bob Costas -- if you already knew how to identify, say, a decent fade-away, it gets on your nerves when B.C. comes off as though he were educating you on the subject.) On the new album, the Afghan Whigs decide that if you haven’t figured out how they do things, you’re never going to figure it out, so they’re not going to bother putting up big neon signs any more.

The result, to use a tired phrase, is like a breath of fresh air, though fresh air is the last thing 1965 wants you to think of; its heart lies with the smoky rooms and plaque-encrusted arteries of lives badly lived. But in what is for members of my generation a fairly subversive shift, lyricist Greg Dulli is beginning to come around to Blake’s conclusion -- that the whole point of living dangerously is coming around to an understanding of how good you had it before the guilt and the shame began to stick to you, and that the benefit of coming to that understanding is that it makes the shame taste better. For Dulli especially, whose muse has reached maturity while hovering around issues of sin and non-secular salvation , this is a remarkable development. To see just how remarkable, we need to remember Gentlemen, the album the Afghan Whigs released in 1993.

Gentlemen remains the most technically accomplished of the Afghan Whigs’ albums; the guitar work shimmers like new snow. It is a very young man’s album, and it’s about sex and cheap heroin. Anger shoots from its eleven songs like sparks from a bonfire. It is willfully perverse (the cover models are a couple of young children, the girl recumbent in bed, the boy sitting on its edge, the whole scene highly suggestive of weighty adult conflicts) and more than a little impressed with itself. To me it is the touchstone against which everything Greg Dulli does is going to have to be compared, because even though I think that 1965 is in the final analysis a better album, Gentlemen is more arrogant. It reeks of youthful ambition and for that it is glorious. In it, Dulli meant once and for all to solve the problem of sexuality. I am reminded what seems to me the natural response to Thoreau’s claim that he means to “suck out all the marrow” of life: really? Just you, all by yourself? Gentlemen was going to impress you or die trying. It didn’t do all of what it set out to do, of course, but the heavy perfume of its all-encompassing desire is quite enough to make it a completely essential album. Some of the songs are so tight in their small, determined perfection that you can almost feel the band burning up their talent like fuel; it wouldn’t have been any surprise at all if, after Gentlemen, none of them had had any talent left at all. “Fountain and Fairfax” alone, the album’s blistering midway point, is more fury than most artists will be lucky enough to harness in their entire lives.

I suspect that the reason Gentlemen didn’t eat up every ounce of the Afghan Whigs’ ability is that it threw down a gauntlet which no other band in the country was able to pick up. (The one possible exception is the Melvins, but Kevin Hughes, myself, and their moms are the only people who care about the Melvins.) “Who will help me mill the flour?” asked the little red hen. “Who besides us wants to actually make albums?” asked Greg Dulli, his bandmates flailing away behind him. Nobody answered. The silence was enormous. There are people in indie rock, of course, who would like to make albums, but they lack both the chops and the discipline to really get into the craft up to their elbows like Boz Scaggs making Silk Degrees, disappearing so deeply into the material that the end-product made listeners feel like they were spying on the neighbors and resulted in legends about people requiring hospitalization after putting the final mixdowns into the cans. The Afghan Whigs announced with Gentlemen that they were willing to brave such waters. By the time one gets through the ballad, “My Curse,” sung achingly by Scrawl’s Jody Stephens, one is utterly terrified. You can just let Gentlemen play and enjoy it for rocking out with greater skill and enthusiasm than most other bands can muster, of course, but if you actually sound its depths, it’ll move you.

1965, by comparison, is much tamer; it’s not harrowing, it’s just bitchin’. It’s also, on balance, a better record. The melodies are made of bits and pieces from the Bachman Turner Overdrive songbook, which is the most underrated source of inspiration in all of music, and the musicianship is sterling. The piano in particular you can feel in your shoulders; it makes you rock back and forth in your chair. Dulli’s singing is all easy swagger now, having been down in the gutter enough times to know when to hold back, so that it’s both funny and very sad when, in “Crazy,” he glides over the lines:

So what’s going to happen to you now?
Therapy, the pharmacy

The songs on 1965 find a happy balance between the ‘60s soul that Dulli has always loved and the hard guitar rock that’s every white singer’s birthright; you could dance to most of them if you were so inclined. There’s a slinky little number called “66,” the sexiest thing I’ve heard all year, that makes the most effective use of the handclap you’re likely to come across any time soon. “Citi Soleil” might have been an outtake from Every Picture Tells a Story. The single that I mentioned earlier, “Somethin’ Hot,” will make you feel for all the world like you’re behind the wheel of a primer-blue 1967 Mustang doing doughnuts all around your high-school parking lot. Like Gentlemen, it’s a little obscene (the slow-blues “Neglekted,” actually, is a lot obscene), and like Black Love it’s got religious innuendo hidden like a switchblade in its back pocket, but it has a wispy, reckless quality all its own. It deals out it shredding bits of slightly distorted guitar in a miserly, tantalizing fashion. It’s hard, I know, but imagine if Vanilla Fudge had been a good band and you’re close to what makes 1965 so worthy of your attention: it’s just so unlikely. It’s a genuine surprise. It’s the last thing you’d have expected to find coming out of your speakers in late 1998.
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