Afghan Whigs - 1965
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
On their final album 1965, the Afghan Whigs reached a plane of slithering Midwestern booze rock that blends self-parody, desperation, glitz, and genuine sadness all at the same time. Greg Dulli treats the album like his own personal At the Sands: heartbreak and a gritty, sloppy need for affection pours through the speakers in four minute pop nuggets. This is the white-boy harmony of crotch, diary, and tear-duct that oatmeal bands (Matchbox Twenty, Maroon 5, countless other chimps) have made a career diluting.
Let’s take a moment to give guitarist Rick McCollum and drummer Michael Horrigan some credit, though. On “Crazy,” the album’s early stunner McCollum matches every dip in Dulli’s voice while Horrigan drives the metered blood around with snares and dirty cymbal splashes. Standing next to Dulli’s blue-eyed bluesman isn’t easy, especially one who’d record a solemn, echoing sex session (“Sweet Son of a Bitch”), before the centerpiece and nasty-confection single “66.” But the Whigs wisely let Dulli hog the spotlight and narrative focus and instead give the music its backbone: easy guitar strums, whining pedal effects, and ageless rock/blues drum patterns.
“66” sounds disturbingly gaudy at first. The song appears to ease into genre conventions—quiet, hesitant singing, echoing guitar pedals, and a faint could-be-Pro-Tool’d choir in the background—only to be shattered by Dulli’s preening, lewd yet weepy hook: “come on little rabbit / Show me where you’ve got it / ‘Cause I know you’ve got to have it.” We think he’s about to topple some big emotional wall, but suddenly the cockiest man in the room almost looks like the saddest. The music waits for him to change his mind, but he’s still leading with his dick. It’s almost Prince-y profane, but far too pig-headed and masculine. It’s a song for the man who fucked everyone he met in his apartment building and now no one will give him the time of day. Desperation overtakes all reason and emotion.
The whole album is filled with collapses: a chain of bass drum kicks that gives way to an aching guitar line, a string section that falls beneath Dulli’s defeated hook of “you cry too much baby / I’m tired of the sound,” and a lurching determination that runs alongside them. Album closer “The Vampire Lanois” smears a buckshot range of horns over the flustered electric guitar as the gothic gospel choir exhales a deep breath. A second after latching onto the instantaneous asshole sentiment “you can fuck my body / Just don’t fuck my mind” of “Neglekted,” the pleading kicks in: “remember my name!”
Like an unrepentant fallen angel, Dulli trots out failure after failure. Dank R&B-infected rock struts and frets its last hour in the Afghan Whigs shell. Years after its germination date, and countless moons since anyone but the already converted praised it, the tone of the band on 1965 finally strikes the pop heartstring.
Confessions are a big topic today, so I’ll throw in mine at the end: 1965 was my first Afghan Whigs album. Working backward through their discs (from the stark naked siren calls of 1965 to the (comparative) lyrical restraint and distant guitar work of Gentlemen), anyone can hear the layers of dust, regret and filth shellacked onto the band and Dulli’s voice.
I once heard poetry referred to as “what happens after the epic ends.” If you’re willing to accept that definition, then 1965 is the foul sonnet that gets tacked onto the rambling, invisible epic of the Afghan Whigs. Watch the phoenix struggle under its own ash. Hear the band give a fitful last push at relevance. Hear a man mine his diary one last time.