March 12th, 1996, The Afghan Whigs released their fifth album Black Love through Elektra Records/Sub Pop in the US and by Mute in Europe. The album was produced by frontman Greg Dulli.
Coming on the heels of the band’s 1993 breakthrough album Gentlemen. The soulful R&B of Black Love caught fans by surprise. Gentlemen was a darkly powerful alt-rock dive into love, sex and addiction and the destructive aftermath of all three. That album ended up on virtually every critics end of year best of lists and cemented The Afghan Whigs as high priests of gritty, alt-rock noir.
Where Gentlemen is a claustrophobic, intensely powerful affair, Black Love is a remarkably open, soulful and cinematic work. Produced by lead singer and lyricist Greg Dulli with the rest of the Whigs at the time being John Curley on bass, Rick McCollum on guitar, and new drummer Paul Buchignani. Black Love was the middle child of a trio of Whigs albums that are true alternative rock milestones. 1993’s Gentlemen, Black Love in 1996 and 1998’s 1965.
The roots of Black Love grew from the music, film, and literature Greg Dulli turned to while fighting a deep depression. He immersed himself in noir, reading Jim Thompson’s small-town pulp fiction and James Ellroy’s L.A. crime dramas; he watched the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple over and over again. Dulli said in ’96. “With all the crime novels I was reading, all the noir films I was watching, and my generally twisted state of mind, crystalized into what I wanted to do.”
What Dulli and the Afghan Whigs culled from those diverse sources of literature and film is siphoned into high drama, cinematic rock n roll. The Afghan Whigs were, and still are, more cerebral than the majority of their alt-rock counterparts and every bit as musically powerful.
Black Love opens with the dramatic “Crime Scene Part One,” the songs intro is the sounds of a train on a track, leaving a station, heading into the distance, setting a mood of departure and escape, in which Dulli declares, “Tonight, tonight
I say goodbye, To everyone who loves me.”
Emotions run high throughout the album’s eleven tracks. Explorations on regret, revenge, desperation, anger and lust drip from every verse. Musically The Whigs are in incredible form here. The dynamic shifts and crescendos from the band, perfectly complement Dulli’s powerful ruminations. It’s the sound of goosebumps exploding. There’s a swagger and self awareness about the band’s delivery that sells what Dulli is preaching as Gospel.
In the breathtaking ballad, “Step Into The Light,” a pained Dulli offers, “I have to ask/I need to know/Was it ever love?” And he admits, “See the trouble I’m in.” First single “Honky’s Ladder” is a driving masterpiece, reminiscent in tone to the title track of their previous album Gentlemen.
Where Gentlemen offered no way out for its protagonists, Black Love offers some light at the end of the tunnel. After the blissful pop gem, “Summer’s Kiss,” The train sounds from the intro fade back in at the start of the closing number, “Faded,” which begins with Dulli singing, “You can believe in me, baby? / Can I believe in you?”
The Afghan Whigs are an anomaly. Formed in Cincinnati in the late 80s, they travelled to the Pacific Northwest and became the first band ‘not’ from that region to sign with Sub Pop Records.
Where many bands in The Whigs’ shoes at that time would have tailored their sound to catch the prevailing alternative rock and grunge waves. The Afghan Whigs were far more intent to follow their own path. They held tight to their disparate influences of Soul, RnB, Film Noir, Pulp Fiction and the gritty beauty on the wrong side of the tracks. They forged their own unique sound that is still as fresh and vital in 2023 as it was in 1991.
Black Love is a masterpiece. Some bands have one in them, most don’t have any. The Afghan Whigs delivered three back to back masterpieces in the 90s, with Black Love as the centrepiece. Those of us who know, know. To the uninitiated. LISTEN UP, NOW..!