Heart of the Betrayer
In 1992 a book called “My Enemy My Love: Man-Hating and Ambivalence in Womens Lives”, Judith Levine wrote about cultural stereotypes of maleness. “Gender stereotypes enforce a cultural status quo,” she wrote, and it’s in the interest of maintaining this status quo that we imagine men posses in their DNA “the ability to drive a nail… or the willingness to kill.” Levine traced three overarching male types: There was the Infant, who will always be a child and needs a mothering wife to tie his shoes for him. The most threatening was the Beast, the man who waits in dark alleys and preys on women. The third type was the Betrayer, and this was the man who seduces, betrays, and abandons women: “Liar, cheat, trickster, manipulator, no-count charmer, womanizer- the Betrayer changes his aliases daily, but his crimes are sickeningly predictable.”
Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs is the poet laureate of Betrayers; he gives voice to the type of man Levine describes in her book, and his body of work is at least as important as anything ever written in a gender studies department. As an artist Dulli has explored, in a serious and unrepenant way, his particular brand of masculinity. “Ladies, let me tell you about myself,” he sings on “Gentlemen,” “I got a dick for a brain.” Throughout his career he’s confessed to the feeling of being a criminal, to a sick love of power, and a knowledge that he can be enslaved by sex, or enslave someone with it. He mines the worst mistrusts of sexual relationship. “Gonna turn on you before you turn on me,” he declares on “Congregation”, and later on that same record there’s the remarkable anti-love song “Let Me Lie To You.”
Dulli promises everything’s a lie, and all men are bastards. Fucked-up affairs are his inspiration, and even though the music sometimes tries to veer away from them to other, lighter, more wholesome topics, he never stays away from his demons for long. On “If I Were Going,” the first track off “Gentlemen,” Dulli’s demons have become a full-fledged monster, eating him alive: “It don’t bleed, it don’t breathe, it’s locked it’s jaws and now it’s swallowing. It’s in our hearts, it’s in our heads, it’s in our love, baby, it’s in our bed.” This is a beautiful insomniac song, an opening to the Whigs’ greatest record, where all their obsessions and confusions seem to be coming to a head.
The Whigs’ have several full-length albums to their credit, including “Up in It,” “Congregation.” “Gentlemen,” and the just released “Black Love”. A few years ago they released a 12-inch called “Uptown Avondale,” where they dared to be white boys covering soul classics. Dulli put his own gloomy twist on the Supremes’ “Come See About Me,” which he sang in an out-of-tune, minor key, changing the song from a light, inviting girl-group number to a threatening, sad dare. It was brilliant. The Whigs’ have also released a series of incredibly stupid videos. It’s hard to say which is the stupidest: but there’s one where he’s singing from behind a naked girl’s shoulder, and then there’s one for “Gentlemen” where he is transformed into a black man and then an old man. I’m not sure what the message of that one is supposed to be. Maybe that he is the Voice of All Men or something.
It’s a tribute to the power of the Whigs’ music that I forget those ridiculous videos when I hear the songs on their own again. I don’t need the television images, because the Whigs create things I can see vividly, like this line from “Black Love”: “It was a Saturday, I came home early drunk with love- and other things.” The Whigs are a sensual band in the way they make songs about situations you recognize in your body, even if they’re things you’ve hidden from your conscious mind.
“My lust it ties me up/ in chains,” Dulli sings on “Blame, Etc.” from the Whigs’ newest, “Black Love.” “I know my heart/ is being used, but what I’m not allowed to have/ I could never refuse.” It’s familiar terrain for the Whigs, and this time around Dulli is a little less compelling than he has been in the past. Like its title “Black Love” often seems more an advertisement for the Afghan Whigs’ great qualities than anything else. Dulli seems to be sampling himself: there are exact copies of “Congregation” and “Gentlemen”; I could predict mood shifts long before they happened. There were moments when it felt like the same old story, with a lot of the passion drained out of it. Granted I’ve listened to these records hundreds of times, until my housemates have begged me to put on something else. Nevertheless, when Dulli sang “These words I heard them once before,” on “My Enemy,” I couldn’t help thinking he seemed slightly impatient with himself, like his obsessiveness was on the verge of becoming an act.
Still “Black Love” is a good record, if not a great record, and there are sublime moments, like the moment on “Faded” when Dulli prays, “Lord, lift me out of the night, come on, look down and see the mess I’m in tonight.” His voice seems to be sliding out of his throat, like he can’t be contained any longer. Even though this latest record might be a little derivative, and a disappointment for die-hard Whigs fans, “Faded” is a moment worth waiting for. It’s a song full of the Whigs’ old darknesses, but it also shines with a new kind of light. It promises that you can be lost for a long time in the throes of obsession, you can be a criminal and a fuck-up and a guilt-ridden asshole, but still, sooner or later, someone will look down on you and have some mercy. Sooner or later someone will give you a break.
By Emily White