Two Best Albums of 1993
A critical analysis of “Gentlemen” and “Mercury” by American Music Club.
BY Brent Bozman
Gentlemen specific content excerpted.
Gentlemen is one of the great concept albums — capturing, in agonizing detail, the cycle of abuse, violence and codependency in a doomed relationship. Addiction — physical, emotional, psychological — is at the heart of the album’s conflicts. Dulli staked his claim here as the Al Pacino of rock music — an inveterate scene-chewer who nevertheless managed to put forward powerful performances of emotional depth. But despite all of the attention Dulli attracted during the Whigs’ heyday, Gentlemen is the work of a great, cohesive band at the height of its powers. Rick McCollum’s jabbing rhythm guitar and jagged soloing provided the power, while the underrated rhythm section of John Curley and Steve Earle built a solid foundation equally capable of a surprisingly supple groove as well as straight-ahead rock drive.
Gentlemen’s first half consists of dark but up-tempo rockers, building to a gradual and inevitable meltdown. Despite the turmoil explicit in the lyrics, Dulli is still in control, throwing off cocky one-liners while the band backs him with measured intensity. “Gentlemen” and “Debonair,” carried along by McCollum’s post-punk meets funk guitar riffing and Dulli’s swaggering delivery, set the stage. “Be Sweet” uses the standard alternative rock practice of soft-verse/loud-chorus, but the band rises above cliché thanks to a lacerating McCollum guitar solo. But the facade quickly breaks down: “When We Two Parted” is a slow crawl, with Dulli singing with a stalker’s intensity, finally exploding into full burn at the song’s finale.
The Whigs build to a stirring climax with “What Jail is Like,” the penultimate howl of rage that brings the album to a full boil. Over a rolling piano figure on the verses, Dulli warns “if cornered/I’ll scratch my way out of the pen,” leading to the crashing guitar and thundering drumroll of the chorus as Dulli screams “and it goes down every night/this must be what jail is really like.” It’s a riveting performance, evoking the entrapment of need and desire musically as well as lyrically.
Just when the hothouse atmosphere of Gentlemen threatens to suffocate the listener, the Whigs bring in Scrawl’s Marcy Mays to take lead vocals on “My Curse,” the one song on the album told from the woman’s point of view. Mays almost steals the show from Dulli — her exhausted, drained voice captures the morning-after damage left in Dulli’s wake perfectly, contrasting beautifully with the subtle sway of the muted acoustic shuffle of the song.
After Mays’ performance, Gentlemen closes on a subdued note with “Now You Know,” a cover of the Tyrone Davis soul gem “I Keep Coming Back,” and the final instrumental “Brother Woodrow/Closing Prayer.” On “I Keep Coming Back,” Dulli’s rage has dulled, replaced with a weary resignation that the force of attraction is beyond his control. And the muted, ominous “Brother Woodrow/Closing Prayer” signals the calm before the storm, the lull before the cycle inevitably starts over again. The Whigs offer no resolution or redemption — the characters are trapped by their own behavior and desires, unable to stop the forward motion of their eternal conflict.