On the Record: The Afghan Whigs – Black Love

Record label Elektra was never good at handling any of it’s “alternative” acts (and they had some good ones). They botched the promotion of terrific albums like Marvelous 3’s ReadySexGo, as well as Third Eye Blind’s Blue and Out of the Vein. Those albums – polished, catchy, and radio-ready should’ve been successful. So, I can only imagine what sort of head-scratching went on when The Afghan Whigs delivered Black Love – their second album for the label – in 1996. While the Whigs’ previous album, 1993’s excellent Gentlemen, subtly flirted with soul/R&B textures, Black Love outright co-opts them into the band’s sound. At the height of Brit-pop and the rise of post-grunge, Elektra’s execs must have been baffled by this dark, challenging album.

While not a concept album per se, the songs on Black Love do have similar thematic preoccupation – with betrayal, deception – that serve as the album’s through-line. Given the Black Love‘ssubject manner and it’s generic influences, the album plays like the soundtrack to some fictional blaxploitation/ film noir (a film I would love to see, by the way). The notion that Black Love works as a soundtrack of sorts isn’t too far off, even the liner notes say the album was “shot on location” (also, according to Wikipedia, frontman/songwriter/producer Greg Dulli attempted to produce a noir film).

Black Love opens with the high melodrama of the widescreen “Crime Scene, Part One,” which establishes the themes of the album, as its line “A lie, the truth, which one should I use?” is echoed later in the funk/rock workout “Blame, Etc.” Throughout the album, the Whigs move between the cool confidence of swaggering rockers (the singles “Going to Town,” “Honkey’s Ladder”) and smokey ballads (“Step Into the Light,” “Night by Candlelight”), until concluding with the epic “Faded” (which also caps off their ‘best of’ release Unbreakable).

Dulli has always worn his influences on his sleeve, whether it through his own songwriting or the covers that punctuated the band’s live set, which is partially why this album has aged remarkably well, despite the fact that critics and fans were divided upon its release in 1996. Black Love is dark, at times difficult, and the band’s most ambitious record. The could have easily followed up the success of Gentlemen with more of the same, but this album shows The Afghan Whigs had no interest playing it safe.

About James Hrivnak
The H is silent.

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