When The Afghan Whigs dissolved in 2001, no one would have guessed that Usher would be the catalyst for their reunion — Usher being the Atlanta R&B lothario behind “U Remind Me,” Afghan Whigs being the alt-rock, soul and punk fusionists behind some of the ’90s’ best and most carnally fueled guitar records.
But in hindsight, it all makes sense. The Whigs mastered sordid confessions when Usher was still doing Star Search. The band’s lead singer and songwriter, Greg Dulli, artfully appropriated historically African-American genres with more style, intelligence and humor than almost any of his peers — and gave Kamasi Washington one of his first professional breaks.
“I was in Australia and my manager called and said, ‘Hey, do you wanna play South by Southwest?’” Dulli recalls. “I was like, ‘Absolutely not.’ And then he was like, ‘Do you want to play with Usher?’ And I said, ‘Go on.’”
Given two days’ notice to play a headlining show at SXSW’s infamous Fader Fort in 2013, with Usher as the surprise cameo, Dulli, 51, was transported to the urgency of his years as a teenager in Cincinnati, frantically assembling all the parts for a last-minute gig.
In the wake of the well-received performance, the Whigs returned to the studio and bashed out their first album in 14 years, Do to the Beast. Its successor, this week’s In Spades, manages to pair the adolescent intensity of the band’s early work with the virtuosity of master songwriters, players and arrangers. Released on Sub Pop, it’s arguably the Whigs’ best since 1996’s Black Love. It manages the rare feat of indulging in past memories without acquiescing to musical stasis.
“If you stop letting new things turn you on, you’re creatively dead, or you’re working in a vacuum, which is summarily uninteresting,” Dulli says.
We’re talking in the gorgeous, two-story Silver Lake home that Dulli has owned for more than a dozen years. The self-destructive mania of his 20s and 30s has softened into the more meditative tones of middle age. There’s a garden with blackberries, strawberries and an avocado tree. Pop art and voodoo talismans. He practices yoga, has survived bouts of depression, and co-owns the Short Stop bar — a stone’s throw from Dodger Stadium, where Dulli has season tickets (despite remaining the most dedicated Reds fan this side of YG).
If there’s a secret to his continued sonic relevance, it’s not hard to find. After 30 years of professionally making music, Dulli retains the omnivorous sense of discovery of someone a third his age. He’s more up on rap than most rap critics. He’s continually listening and Shazaaming obscurities unearthed via Dublab, French radio station FIP, Montreal outlet CKUT and Memphis’ WEVL.
In Spades weaves themes of mortality and loss, sex and salvation, violence and memory with flashbacks of his childhood partially spent in Birdland, a Cincinnati suburb, which Dulli describes as the place “where all the things you wanted to do were happening.” It’s frequently melancholic but triumphant — perhaps testament to Dulli’s own life, which has weathered bouts of turmoil that would have left most on the permanent disabled list. Instead, he’s achieved an Ichiro-like longevity (or maybe Pete Rose without the gambling ignominy).
“I really believe that you can constantly reinvent yourself,” Dulli says. “If you put this record up next to [1992’s] Congregation, you’d be like, ‘How is that the same band?’ I even think I sing differently than I used to. I feel like we made a vital, modern, absolutely compelling record.”
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SHOW ME HOW
To add a final postscript from Usher Raymond IV: “Yeah.”