How Do You Burn? arrives with a mix of inevitability and gratitude
The Afghan Whigs might take breaks, but Greg Dulli doesn’t. Maybe that fact helps explain how the group can pick up after time away and maintain the same energy and creativity as always.
The band’s stunning run of grunge-expanded albums through the end of the 1990s had set them apart. Even as the group’s time wound down – the split was apparently amicable and more a question of logistics than anything – Dulli was finding new outlets. The Twilight Singers arrived almost immediately, a pretty natural outgrowth of his previous work. His friendship and collaboration with Mark Lanegan solidified into the Gutter Twins. Each act had its own sound, but Dulli’s drive came through in any setting.
In 2011, the Whigs reunited and despite some lineup shuffle have continued as if they’d been rolling all along. During this last dry spell since 2017’s In Spades, Dulli made space for a solo debut. He also suffered loss, particularly with the deaths of Lanegan this year and Whigs/Singers/Gutter Twins guitarist Dave Rosser in 2017. The new album How Do You Burn? arrives, then, with a mix of inevitability – Greg Dulli always makes music – but also a hint of gratitude, because the music doesn’t always go on.
Artist: The Afghan Whigs
Album: How Do You Burn?
Label: Royal Cream/BMG
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
And even if it does go on, it doesn’t always work. Eventually everybody drops a mid-career bomb, whether the pretentious concept album or the cleanse-the-system hodgepodge. With How Do You Burn?, the Whigs are having none of that. There might be a bit of sonic diversity, but rather than breaking from continuity, it merely expands it. The garage, the soul and the dark psyche remain, and if the album’s no song cycle, it never lacks coherence.
“Make You See God” opens the disc with adrenalin, its lusty suggestiveness held at bay by its menace. Dulli doesn’t mind hinting at the danger present in the suggested interactions. The song starts with a terse anxiety but finally gives way to its own id, reveling in guitars and psychosexual aching. Following track “The Getaway” slows the pace down without lowering the intensity. Dulli’s “hiding on display” suits his typical approach to songwriting and feels nearly as uncomfortable as the urges of its predecessor.
Marcy Mays – familiar to fans for her vocal on 1993’s “My Curse” – returns here for “Domino and Jimmy,” a track that Dulli wrote as an update on “My Curse.” Where that song thrived on deceit and camouflage, this one pulls the couple’s psychology into the light. It might not bring apologies or complete clarity, but it does offer progress. When a singer is “lost inside my head,” exposure offers some sort of liberation, and if the Whigs temper it, they also keep it grounded.
Another guest vocal deserves attention, as Lanegan appears as backup on “Jyja.” The song follows a sensual drive, but subverts any eroticism with its own creepiness. Dulli’s singer enjoys “copping a feel” and his own “misbehavior.” He’s clearly unapologetic on this one which turns on lust for a unnerving character study, the sort of song that plays to Dulli’s strengths as a writer while still feeling like a surprise.
The disc closes with “In Flames,” placing the singer in a destructive salvation, burning at “four in the morning” even as he sees freedom in the process. There’s a tension between cathartic release and nihilistic emptiness as the song steadily builds to its climax. Listeners can’t know what comes through the fire, raising the album’s titular question while refusing to answer it. The best hope might be not in how you burn but that you don’t burn in isolation.
As How Do You Burn? ends, it refuses any path easier than simply sitting in the fire. Dulli feints at redemptive possibilities but lingers on damaged pleasures. His world mixes real and cinematic shadows, a complex combination leading to contemporary eeriness and classical catharsis. Regardless of what path Dulli follows in his art, the Afghan Whigs have the force to take him through.
You could say the band sounds reinvigorated, but that would imply they’d suffered a decline in vigor at some point, which has yet to happen.