Since 2012, the Afghan Whigs have operated not so much in the present as in a strange state of suspended animation — a kind of “active pause” between their past and their future. Their last album, 1965, came out in 1998; the band dissolved three years later via a press release that cited “geographical distance” as the primary reason. During their initial run, they inspired a kind of cultish adulation — they were also by no means universally beloved. I was firmly “pro-”; Gentlemen, their 1993 masterpiece, hit me in ways that I wouldn’t even realize until I actually encountered some of the bad-love situations it catalogued in gory detail.
Initially, the Whigs were scruffy Cincinnati rockers who slowly incorporated the pleasures of soul (and musical theater!) into their repertoire, but not in the nakedly nostalgic way that other retro-minded bands of the era would; the 1992 EP Uptown Avondale put its world-weariness ahead of the fact that Al Green and Holland-Dozier-Holland were among its credited songwriters. In 1993, the band released the bad-romantic masterpiece Gentlemen, its bilious major-label debut; the noir deep-dive Black Love (which closes with the eight-minute masterpiece “Faded”), a stint covering Barry White for Hollywood, and the grittier, humbler 1965 followed. Then they disbanded.
In the 2000s, Dulli satisfied his creative impulses in two different outlets — the Twilight Singers, who had the same masochistic ache of the Whigs, but tempered it with an age-acquired wisdom, and the Gutter Twins, in which his yowl and Mark Lanegan’s sandpaper burr twinned together to form a vortex of exquisite heartbreak. He toured solo, and was kind to those members of the audience who called out for chestnuts from Up In It, even if he ultimately ignored those requests in favor of songs that reflected his current state, both artistically and emotionally.
The Whigs reactivated two years ago for a string of reunion shows, but though they were well received, they scanned more as revival than forward motion. Reviving the Afghan Whigs — a savvy branding move in an era of chronic ’90s remembrance — ratchets up expectations. To expect Do to the Beast to sound like the band picked up where it left off is unrealistic. Guitarist Rick McCollum, whose skittering riffs defined the sound of the Whigs’ peaks as much as Dulli’s weary bombast, is absent. (He had been a part of the band’s 2012 reunion jaunt, but was not part of the Beast sessions. “Until Rick confronts some very real things in his own life, I can’t play music with him,” Dulli told Rolling Stone earlier this year.) Bassist John Curley remains part of the fold; other players on the album include guitar stalwart Alain Johannes, ex-Chavez member Clay Tarver and Squirrel Bait’s Ben Daughtrey. And Beast isn’t completely bereft of rave-ups — “The Lottery,” in particular, chugs along on the strength of a propulsive guitar line by former Emeralds member Mark McGuire.
In addition to the new players, though, 21st-century innovations in R&B have altered the band’s musical outlook. On the 2012 tour the Whigs covered soul polyglot Frank Ocean; at SXSW 2013 they collaborated with Usher on, among other songs, the hitmaker’s spaced-out Diplo jam “Climax.” While the Uptown Avondale roster of soul classics is often cited as the Whigs’ primary influence, contemporary R&B has always informed Dulli — the band covered TLC’s “Creep” years before “indie rock band takes on pop song” became a reliable meme. But the newer, weirder strain of R&B informs Do to the Beast in a slightly more elliptical way; tracks like “It Kills” (which features a gorgeous cello counterpoint and backing vocals by the elusive yet monstrously talented Van Hunt) and “Can Rova” represent expansions of the band’s palette that weren’t even hinted at on the waning notes of 1965. Dulli’s voice sounds different, more willing to venture out of its comfort zone; on the tense “I Am Fire” his come-ons are light as air, yet they still hang ominously.
When I first put on Do to the Beast, thinking of it as “an Afghan Whigs album” took a bit of getting used to — 16 years will do a lot to a person’s expectations, especially when there are emotions tangled up in them. But the more I listened, the more I realized what Beast was: a compact statement by a band aware of its association with the past, but ruthlessly determined to forge its own present.