November 30, 2023

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The Afghan Whigs: How Do You Burn? Album Review

After Top Gun: Maverick, Minions: The Rise of Gru, and Beavis and Butthead: Do the Universe warmed things up, the most highly anticipated sequel event of the summer has finally arrived—well, for Afghan Whigs fans, at least. Seven songs into the band’s ninth album, we hear a familiar voice, and it’s not Greg Dulli’s. Back on the Whigs’ 1993 album, Gentlemen, Dulli’s roiling cocktail of self-aggrandizement and self-loathing was splashed right back in his face by guest vocalist Marcy Mays; her star turn on the ballad “My Curse” centered the voice of a woman trapped in a toxic relationship with the sort of lothario that Dulli’s so fond of portraying. And now, 29 years later, we get a status update in the form of “Domino and Jimmy,” the emotional centerpiece of How Do You Burn? Decades removed from the turmoil, both characters are still traumatized by their rancorous romantic history: “Like a living ghost, you get lost inside my head,” Mays sings with a combination of resignation and resolve, before Dulli takes the mic to repent. But “Domino and Jimmy” opens up these old wounds to heal them once and for all—in contrast to the plate-smashing unrest of “My Curse,” the new song exudes the purifying quality of a sunrise swim in the ocean, suggesting both principals are now in a better place. Their curse may never fully be broken, but they’ve learned to live with it, and even draw strength from it.

Beyond bringing a sense of peace and closure to one of the most harrowing songs in their canon, “Domino and Jimmy” is also a measure of how much the Whigs’ have grown over the past three decades. An archetypal four-man indie-rock band during their initial ‘90s run, the post-reunion Whigs have become an ever-widening storm of serial collaborators, auxiliary members, and celebrity guests, with Dulli at the center (inheriting the open-door policy of his interim outfit, the Twilight Singers). Even the presence of bassist John Curley—Dulli’s most loyal right-hand man since 1988—is seemingly no longer a prerequisite for getting an Afghan Whigs record off the ground. Sessions for How Do You Burn? began amid COVID restrictions in September 2020, with Dulli and drummer Patrick Keeler (Raconteurs) holing up in the Joshua Tree studio of new guitarist Christoper Thorn (ex-Blind Melon), while Curley, guitarist Jon Skibic, and keyboardist Rick Nelson Zoomed in their parts from home later on.

So between the ever-changing membership and desert recording locale, the Afghan Whigs have essentially become Dulli’s Queens of the Stone Age, a point hammered home by the new album’s opening Hommeage, “I’ll Make You See God,” a pure, pedal-to-the-metal motorik rocker that counts as the fastest, heaviest, and most relentlessly bull-headed song in this band’s entire oeuvre. (Naturally, its impetus was as soundtrack fodder for the video game Gran Turismo 7.) But of course, the Queens connection runs deeper than that—both groups had long-standing ties to the late Mark Lanegan, who provided How Do You Burn? with both vocals and its title (which was his way of asking the question: what gets you excited?). Tellingly, Lanegan doesn’t get a star feature on the record—his voice is used more texturally, as a doomy echo of the darkest thoughts bouncing around Dulli’s head. Amid the elegantly Beatlesque chamber pop of “The Getaway,” he follows Dulli’s lead like a shadow: When Dulli boastfully exclaims that he’s “sitting on a wire, hiding on display/Waiting for the night as I destroy the day,” Lanegan repeats the words underneath in a weighty whisper that suggests he’ll actually make good on the threat.

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