Darkness and Light
by Natalie Nichols
It begins with a slightly buzzing pulse, builds to a symphonic crescendo, and then fades slowly, wearily away. The lyrics convey a sense of knowledge gained from unspeakable experience. The vocals climb from soft reassurances to near-frenzied pleas. It is the Twilight Singers’ “The Killer,” a mesmerizingly desperate number from their album Blackberry Belle, sung with agonized gusto by leader/mastermind Greg Dulli.
At one point he beseeches, straining at the top of his range, “I want you to burn me ’til I feel it,” evoking a breathtaking numbness, a soul so dulled by … something … that it needs to be corroded before pain (or pleasure) can even register. Indeed, an exhausted fatalism grips much of the album, which is shot through with a sense of being lost, perversely coupled with a desire not to be found. It is preoccupied, as Dulli often is, with the twin R&B poles of sin and salvation, but Belle wallows endlessly in the gray between.
Dulli isn’t anywhere near that bad off on this fine weekday afternoon, even though he’s asleep when I knock on the heavy door of his hillside Silver Lake bungalow at the appointed time. Still groggy, he pours me a glass of water and explains he was up ’til dawn, working on a new Twilight Singers EP of cover songs, to be released this summer. He’s also preparing for the band’s spring U.S. tour, which starts this Saturday in Orlando, and recording another project, the Gutter Twins, with ex-Screaming Trees vocalist and current solo artist Mark Lanegan, who contributed his stentorian rumble to Belle’s dusty barroom-closer “Number Nine.”
In his living room, crowded with a couch and armchair, a stereo/TV setup, a cluttered large coffee table, shelves of books and CDs, memorabilia, and art, he plays me a Gutter Twins tune on which Lanegan sings lead. It has the same illicit pull as the Singers and Dulli’s previous band, alt-soul powerhouse the Afghan Whigs, with Lanegan’s burly, smooth voice kindling a smoldering burn that makes you feel dirty – and want more. The sensation is quite appropriately Wildean in all its “lying in the gutter, looking at the stars” glory.
Dulli, 38, clearly relishes the challenge of having Lanegan as a creative foil. “The first song, we wrote together,” he says. “The next 10 have been almost a songwriters’ competition à la Lennon-McCartney. [Lanegan] likes to point out that he is Lennon. And I like to point out that he’s dead.” Pause. “I was John Lennon in Backbeat,” he adds, referring to the 1994 film dramatizing the Beatles’ early days, for which he provided Lennon’s singing voice. “I’ll be McCartney this time.”
The Ohio-bred musician, who has lived in L.A. for the past five years, has a grand vision for this partnership. “Our idea is that, you know, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings had independent careers when they got together in the ’70s and started to do shows. They were able to mix and match; so when the Gutter Twins come to your town, you will hear Screaming Trees songs, Afghan Whigs songs, Mark Lanegan solo songs, Twilight Singers songs, as well as the vast repertoire of popular music that is within each of us.”
Indeed, Dulli is an avid student of pop, often recording unexpected covers, such as the Whigs’ classic upside-down take on TLC’s “Creep.” The Twilight Singers’ EP should be downright eccentric, judging by the selections he cites: the chilling, Billie Holiday-associated ballad “Strange Fruit,” Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting,” Gershwin’s “Summertime,” and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” They’ll even flip hip-hop soul queen Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love.”
“It was a happy song, and it’s not anymore,” Dulli says. “I think ‘Real Love’ is a song of longing, and I injected some of the longing into the music.”
Longing … need … it’s all there on Blackberry Belle, with an undertow of the shock and sorrow Dulli felt after the 2002 death of his pal, filmmaker Ted Demme, who, at 38, had a heart attack following a celebrity basketball game in Santa Monica. Demme’s sudden passing was hard to accept, and when Dulli finally got to that stage, he says, “It felt like I chopped my legs off from under me. A part of my heart will always be broken.”
He was so roiled he scrapped the album he was going to make, and recorded Blackberry Belle instead. It is a particularly fine collection of tomcatting tunes from the mack daddy of alt-soul, who’s been spreading his decadent gospel since the late ’80s, first with the Whigs, and now with the Twilight Singers, a looser collective of stellar musicians, who on Belle included multi-instrumentalist Mathias Schneeberger, bassist Scott Ford, and such guests as guitarist Alvin Youngblood Hart and former Prince protege Apollonia.
The songs are driven by the singer’s musical persona – a self-pitying, compulsive lover-boy who alternately agonizes over and revels in his evil. On that level, songs like “Teenage Wristband” and “Decatur St.” work quite well, weaving Dulli’s gorgeous piano melodies, fat electric guitar licks, lilting strings, dramatic horns, and ambient noises with his breathy-to-overripe growled, whispered, and moaned intimations. It’s one long plea for attention, for action, for absolution from baser impulses, yet alternately taking pride in the very vices he laments.
Despite the album’s rambling, unquiet desperation, Dulli doesn’t consider it strictly bleak. “I do inherently reject the prince-of-darkness tag that gets thrown on me all of the time,” he says. “There are considerable cracks of light – downright shafts of light – in my songs.” He takes a drag off his cigarette. “It’s chiaroscuro.”
True. Even in the darkest moments, light shines through, albeit in the muted flashes of a fan dance of many-splendored needs – sexual, chemical, emotional, metaphysical. By turns salacious, hallucinatory, reckless, mournful, and always, always menacing, the lyrics have a whispered, intimate quality, like conversations overheard in the darkest recesses of New Orleans (a town that figures large in Dulli’s work), or maybe snippets gleaned from patrons at one of two local bars he co-owns, the Short Stop in Echo Park and Footsie’s in Highland Park.
“I love the sprawling anonymity,” he says of Los Angeles. “You can literally go reinvent your life two miles away, and your old life might not ever see you again. It’s the only place I’ve been in the world that you can do that. In New York, I don’t care how big it is or how many people there are, it’s still, like, an 8-by-17[-mile] island, and you are going to see those motherfuckers again.”
Multiple lives may appeal to him, but the voices on Blackberry Belle speak with a singular tone, often tinged with despair, melancholy, maybe even regret. Dulli’s work has always acknowledged the human toll excess takes, but here he sounds weary of it all, if uncertain of what else there is. At its darkest, Belle leaves the fascinating impression of an aging playboy, headed for oblivion once again, insensate to the point of metaphorically begging to be burned: It is the very antithesis of youthful rock ’n’ roll, and yet the flip side – a curiously brave revelation in this era where no one cares to die before they get old.
But, hey, Dulli ain’t old, and if parts of Blackberry Belle sound as if Demme’s death left him feeling that way, he doesn’t seem to now. “Ted was a major inspiration to me,” he says. “Some of your best friends, you love them so much because they possess qualities you don’t have, and by proxy you get them.” He’s living by Demme’s example, already mapping out the next Singers album and envisioning a Gutter Twins tour. “He did something every day,” Dulli says. “And letting days slip by is something I’m not gonna do.”