March 12th, 1996, THE AFGHAN WHIGS released their fifth album, Black Love, through Elektra Records/Sub Pop in the US and Mute in Europe. Hot 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, addiction, and the destructive aftermath of all three. That album ended up on virtually every critic’s 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 remarkably open, soulful, and cinematic. It was 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 repeatedly. 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. Their ability to create an alluring soundtrack to the darker underbelly of the human condition is unrivalled. The band’s slick delivery is laced with grit and a razor edge, while in Dulli, they have the perfect preacher who is part angel, part devil.

Black Love is a masterpiece. The band is firing on all cylinders, soundtracking Dulli’s passionate probes as he plumbs the depths of the male psyche. Guitarist Rick McCollum fires off riff after memorable riff, while John Curley and Paul Buchignani’s rhythm section is muscular, soulful and dripping with a menacing groove.

Black Love opens with the dramatic “Crime Scene Part One,” the sound of a train leaving a station fades in, 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,” over the snaking purr of a single-note guitar drone. Midway through, the song explodes into widescreen shards of uplifting guitar, bass and drums as Dulli asks, “Do you think I’m beautiful? Do you think I’m evil?” Laying out the dichotomy of the protagonist’s plight.

It’s a staggering opener; the lines, “Bathe my path in shining light / Set the dials to thrill me / Every secret has its price / This one’s set to kill”, convey a fascination with secrecy and the thrill of keeping hidden truths. It suggests that Dulli (or the character he’s portraying) is conscious of the consequences of their actions but is still driven to pursue intrigue and danger.

Dispensing with the languid pace of the opener, “My Enemy” opens with pummeling guitars and drums. A tight, bouncing riff rips at pace while Dulli urgently intones, “I hear the whispers, baby / If what they say is true / They say I killed the brother / To fall in love with you.” Rick McCollum’s hook-laden, wah-drenched guitar fills burrow deep like splinters. The song builds in racing intensity before erupting in a life-affirming halftime groove, as Dulli sings, “The sun is gone / And the sky is black / So get your ass out from behind my back,” his words shoot across the music like fireworks across a night sky.

The threatening calm of “Double Day” is infectious. Its catchy, partly chromatic riff creeps like smoke. Rick McCollum’s exhilarating slide-playing adds to the ever-growing intensity without denting the seductive noir cool. “Blame, Etc.” is a captivating track elevated by guest musician Harold Chichester’s pulsating clavinet and Fender Rhodes and a devastating string arrangement. The song drips with Mowtown funk as Dulli pleads, “My lust, it ties me up in chains / My skin catches fire at the mention of your name / No matter what I tried to do / I could not lose it.”

In the breathtaking ballad, “Step Into The Light,” a pained Dulli offers, “I have to ask / I need to know / Was it ever love?” as he admits, “See the trouble I’m in.” It’s a pitch-perfect rumination on the caustic nature of relationships. “Going To Town” is a Whigs classic. There’s a swagger and self-awareness about the band’s delivery that sells what Dulli is preaching as Gospel.

The first single, “Honky’s Ladder”, is a driving masterpiece, reminiscent in tone to the title track of their previous album, Gentlemen. The song opens with Rick McCollum’s perfectly sustained guitar notes, held over the band’s pounding, spacious chord changes. The verse slips into a super tight, syncopated riff, which proves a perfect bed for Dulli’s menacing proclamations, “Got you where I want you / Motherfucker, I got five up on your dime / And if you want to peep on something / Peep what I got stuck between your eyes.”

“Night By Candlelight” is a beautiful slow dirge packed with longing, regret and pathos. Featuring a guest vocal from the incomparable Shawn Smith of Satchel and Brad, the song moves through several passages before lifting to a staggering crescendo of orchestral strings and crashing cymbal precision.

On “Bulletproof”, there’s a breakthrough, as Dulli puts aside the anger, regret, and lust: “Love I can’t hide / But it’s been easier since I said it now.” This admission sets the tone for the remaining tracks on the album. “Summer’s Kiss” is underpinned by Paul Buchignani’s tremendous Keith Moon-inspired drum rolls, continually expanding the song’s space and driving it forward. “Summer’s kiss is over,” Dulli shouts amid the melee. This blissful pop gem is bittersweet and all-encompassing.

The train sounds from the album’s intro returns at the start of the closing number, “Faded,” which begins with a mournful piano as Dulli sings, “You can believe in me, baby? / Can I believe in you?” On “Faded”, Dulli transforms himself into a classic balladeer as he begs the lord to “lift him out of the night.” Here, the Whigs’ fascination with soul music serves them well. It’s an epic closer to an unforgettable journey.

Black Love is just that, a journey. Emotions run high throughout the album’s eleven tracks—explorations on regret, revenge, desperation, anger, and lust drip from every verse. Musically, The band are in incredible form. The dynamic shifts and crescendos perfectly complement Dulli’s powerful lyrics and delivery. Where the previous album, Gentlemen, offered no way out for its protagonists, Black Love offers some light at the end of the tunnel.

The Afghan Whigs are an anomaly. Formed in Cincinnati in the late 80s, they travelled to the Pacific Northwest and became one of the first bands ‘not’ from that region to sign with Sub Pop Records. 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 interested in following their own path.

Holding tight to their Soul, R&B, Film Noir, and Pulp Fiction influences, they documented the gritty beauty on the wrong side of the tracks while proving they are a band with endless depths and real emotional strength. Black Love is a spellbinding story arc, musically and lyrically. As the album’s journey develops, Dulli transforms into a sympathetic character, demonstrating the capacity to change, daring to be human and learn from his poisonous relationships with himself and others.

The Afghan Whigs delivered three back-to-back masterpieces in the ’90s: “Gentlemen” in 1993 and “1965” in 1998, with Black Love as the centrepiece in 1996. It’s a perfect trilogy of alternative rock songwriting and presentation. Black Love contains stories of intrigue, songs about lust, desire, and a host of other deadly sins; it’s passionate, harrowing and most of all devastatingly beautiful.