The Afghan Whigs – Black Love (deluxe reissue)

The Afghan Whigs - Black Love

The Afghan Whigs – Black Love

Following on from The Afghan Whigs’ commercially and critically crossing-over 1993 LP, Gentlemen, receiving the deserved and thoughtful deluxe treatment in late-2014, 1996’s Black Love now undergoes a twentieth anniversary edition.  Crudely speaking, if the former is a claustrophobic small-screen psychodrama about love turned beyond sour, then the latter is a wide-screen crime and lust thriller.  With Greg Dulli and co. having managed to earn a bigger crust with little creative compromise through Gentlemen, for Black Love a bigger budget was used to stretch-out their sound far beyond the imaginations of their onetime grungier peers.

With long-serving drummer Steve Earle replaced by the more dextrous Paul Buchignani, integral piano, organ and clavinet injections from Harold Chichester (Dulli’s future accomplice in The Twilight Singers), the addition of soulful backing vocalists and the ready adornment of strings, the core top-of-their-game line-up of Dulli (vocals/guitar), John Curley (bass) and Rick McCollum (guitar) clearly had a greater musical ambition driving them throughout Black Love.

Straying even further away from the group’s Sub Pop-affiliated earlier years, the LP is both sophisticated and savage.  Mixing together slow-building sprawling epics (“Crime Scene Part One” and “Faded”), solar plexus-punching funk-rockers (“My Enemy” and “Honky’s Ladder”), mutated-Motown-meets-Stax soul (“Blame, Etc.” and “Going To Town”), languid twangy balladry (“Step Into The Light”) and balmy baroque waltzing (“Night By Candlelight”), Black Love is arguably the most eclectic and sonically-rich Afghan Whigs release, that skilfully joins the dots between Goat’s Head Soup, Innervisions, Shaft, Purple Rain and plenty more in-between.

Whilst McCollum’s fluid guitar work and Curley’s solid bass anchoring certainly give the songs a strong yet flexible backbone, Dulli’s powerful vocal delivery gives them their heart, heart and guts.  Lyrically at his sharpest too, with even more cutting couplets than on the self-lacerating Gentlemen, Dulli’s pen drips out memorable lines full of poetic gangster patter (“The sun is gone/The sky is black/So get your ass out/From behind my back”), sweat-soaked hankering (“My lust it ties me up in chains/My skin catches fire at the mention of your name”), darkened self-questioning (“A lie, the truth, which one should I use?”) and sheer back-alley brutality (“Got you where I want you motherfucker…”).

Along such a strong and focused main event here, the added extras inevitably feel like cutting-room floor clippings of mixed quality.  Frustratingly, unlike the more comprehensive Gentlemen reissue set, contemporaneous B-sides are ignored in favour of previously unreleased recordings.  Although, a stripped-down semi-acoustic version of “Going To Town”, a rudimentary yet warm demo of “Faded” and a sublime piano cover of New Order’s “Regret” are worthwhile tape-vault raids, the remaining clutch of nearly-all-instrumental sketches and jams are largely underwhelming even for those curious about the mechanics behind the The Afghan Whigs’ studio construction processes.

Peripheral bonus material disappointments aside though, it’s unquestionably good to have Black Love reheralded as a close-to-classic ‘90s milestone and to remember it capturing The Afghan Whigs hitting a third long-playing peak in row.  Now, if anyone at Sub Pop is reading this, please can the master tapes for 1992’s Congregation be found, so that album can also benefit from an overdue and expanded reappraisal?

Mute (UK/Europe) / Rhino (US)