The Afghan Whigs have just released Do to the Beast, their first album in 16 years, coming after a decade long split. So this seemed like a good time to revisit their classic 1993 album Gentlemen. Prior to this album, The Afghan Whigs were on Sub Pop and were associated with the grunge movement even though they never fit comfortably into that box. Gentlemen marked their move to a major label and is the album where they really explored who they were as a band. They take elements of soul/R&B and post-punk and combine them with some of the sounds of their contemporaries to come up with a sound all their own which proves the perfect backdrop for the story told here.
There’s definitely a continuity to Gentlemen though it’s more of a collage than a narrative. As listeners, we get the distinct pleasure of hearing about a difficult, destructive relationship with all the gory details. It’s a profoundly painful and beautiful experience. At one moment frontman Greg Dulli sings, “Ladies, let me tell you about myself/ I got a dick for a brain/ and my brain is gonna sell my ass to you.” On paper these lines might look ridiculous but in context they give you one shade of his inner turmoil. The frankness of Dulli’s word choice makes it that much more personal. Later he says, “…slave I only use/ as a word to describe/ the special way I feel for you” and the picture develops a little more. He’s a man conflicted, fighting with himself and the object of his affection throughout the album. To the onlooker, its clear how unhealthy this relationship is, like the friend who you just hope will get the nerve to dump their significant other and move on with their life. It feels so much different from the inside though and Dulli has no problem opening the blinds to give us all a look.
Highlights include the quasi-funk of “Debonair,” a song in which its singer comes off as anything but. This is followed by the positively gut-wrenching “When We Two Parted.” Dulli is so raw and candid it would almost be embarrassing if it didn’t hurt so much. The densely orchestrated guitars are equally chilling and gorgeous. It’s like an experiment in how many shades of blue you can put into one painting. Then there’s “My Curse.” The vocal duties are handled by Marcy Mays of the band Scrawl, allegedly because Dulli found the lyrics too personal to sing himself, so that should tell you something about it.
Gentlemen hits its climax with a cover of Tyrone Davis’, “I Keep Coming Back.” After spending song after song getting into the nitty gritty, Dulli crystallizes his situation into the plainest language and borrows someone else’s words at that, showing its universality. “I wanna leave you/ but I just can’t leave you,” is so simple yet so powerful. On this song, Dulli’s limitations as a vocalist are what serve him most. Don’t get me wrong, he can growl with the best of his grunge peers as well as display an appealingly pained croon. It’s just that when he sings the line, “…when I try as hard as anyone can” and he doesn’t quite hit the note he’s going for it symbolizes everything he’s trying to say on this album. Gentlemen is a stunning album and only becomes more-so with repeated listens. It’s really good to have them back but no matter where they go from here, this album stands as a landmark of the band at their best.
– Jonathan Zuckerman