It's always a little bit heartbreaking when an artist who is dependent on his or her voice starts to lose mastery of the instrument. What made Mariah Carey's pipes transcendent in 1995 now make them seem tragically thin. Former Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli may not have the same burden of success that Carey does, the sharp rasp that characterized Whigs staples like "Debonair" and "Gentlemen" has started to slip. It's a little hollower now, a little flatter — as if the years of smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey in empty bars has finally caught up with him.
Luckily, Dulli has always been able to fall back on his exquisite songwriting skills to carry him through the rough patches. He remains sharp as ever on Dynamite Steps, Dulli's fourth album under the Twilight Singers name. Originally established as a loose collective of musicians Dulli happened to find interesting (most of them based around his adopted home of New Orleans), Twilight Singers has evolved into a particular extension of Dulli's psyche and musical affections. Most of the songs are built on the same blues and soul structures the Whigs specialized in, but Dulli stretches the arrangements until the songs weep unapologetically.
That sound creates the perfect backdrop for Dulli's obsessions, most of which find him wide awake at three in the morning, well after the last prospects of the night have gone home. He's forever locked in a cycle of mistrust and regret, and the narratives on "On the Corner" and "Never Seen No Devil" take him down those same streets, into those same bars and fighting with those same women over and over again.
But Dulli is no misogynist; he's a very particular type of romantic, and he always manages to find the redemption buried in the desperation. On 2006's Powder Burns, it showed up in “Forty Dollars,” wrapped in a Beatles song; on Dynamite Steps, it's locked inside the title track, which closes the album. "You're never going to feel like you felt last night," Dulli croons as the drama cascades around him. He isn't trying to rub it in — he's merely trying to make his lover understand that he’s down there at the bottom with her, with a drink in his hand. By the time he croaks "You love me" at the end the album, you realize that the reason his voice isn't as rich as it once was because the guy has been around; without a little bit of rust on the pipes, he wouldn't have been able to find his way here.