Black Love – Select

4/5 Stars

Poor bugger. Once again, Greg Dulli has been unlucky in love. Previous Whigs albums suggested their helmsman’s dating life is twisted enough to give the Royals a run for their riches. But the state of his affairs has worsened in the three years since the poisoned Dear John of Gentlemen. Considerably. The title says it all, really, and “Bulletproof” warns that “this time we go a little lower”.

Dulli opens proceedings with an invocation to meet him at “the scene of the crime” (“Crime Scene Part One”). Terry and June this is not. What it is though, is the Whigs – and Dulli in particular – on peak form. Although recording for Sub Pop gave them a certain profile, all but the cloth-eared could see there was more to these Cincinnati smoothies than just “grunge.”

Uptown Avondale’s Motown covers and the bittersweet Gentlemen staked their claim as rock’s darkest bar band. Dulli, eschewing plaid for natty suits, poked the ashes of cracked relationships, while the Whigs hammered out an R&B-inflected scuzz rock of often brutal strength. Black Love is their fifth, finest and also their bleakest album, like a rock’n’roll cousin to those noire crime novels by Jim Thompson. You know the plot – bloke is ensnared by cold-hearted beauty who makes off with the cash, leaving him with a smoking gun and the cops at the door. Judging by Black Love, all the women in Dulli’s life are like Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction. And he’s the chump who gets shafted.
All of which makes for a lousy Valentine’s Day, but a topsmart record. “Blame” distills all that fear and loathing into five glorious minutes. An epic of doomed, obsessive love, it broadens the Whigs’ musical scope by interlocking mournful organ with that trademark serrated guitar attack. Dulli comes clean that his love has him “in chains” before embarking on a sing along chorus of “Blame/Deny/Betray/Divide”. On “Going To Town,” even a night out with the missus turns into Bonnie And Clyde, with Dulli screaming “I’ll get the car/You get the match and gasoline” over climbing strings.

The Whigs display a surer musical touch in general, one that often lightens the gloom. “Step Into The Light” is almost country, with sublime snatches of slide flaring in the distance, while the strings and mandolin of “Night By Candlelight” weigh perfectly against its unremittingly tortured lyric. Like Al Pacino in Heat, Dulli would probably say he needs that angst to keep him sharp. And there’s something curiously macho about a song like “Honky’s Ladder,” which marries romantic obsession with a chorus of “got you where i want you, motherfucker”.
You wonder what a Whigs album’d be like if Dulli ever met The Right Girl, but, in the meantime, his recent failures make irresistible listening. All that wallowing in someone else’s sadness gives Black Love a breath-taking redemptive quality.
It’s short on catchy singles, but appearing in Uma Thurman’s next film, Beautiful Girls, with a cover of Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love,” should make the Whigs the stars they ought to be. And, anyway, if Dulli ever did meet Miss Perfect, you know for sure he’d be looking over her shoulder for the revolver.

Sound bite: “Out of the black and into the blacker.”

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