For the first edition of the Learning Curve “column,” I’ll be reviewing the album Gentlemen by The Afghan Whigs.
Just to give you some deets on this album and the band: The Afghan Whigs were formed in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1986 and were the first non-Northwestern U.S. band to get signed to the Sub Pop label in Seattle- you know, the one that’s famous for signing grunge bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden. Gentlemen was released in 1993 after they got signed to the major label Elektra Records and was popular enough to get some MTV play time. The Whigs broke up in 2001, reformed briefly to record a few tracks in 2006, and then I guess pretty much fell off the radar after that. Apparently there was an Afghan Whigs tribute album called Summer’s Kiss that came out in 2009. You can read more about them on Wikipedia if you’re interested.
Before I get into this album review, I want to publish the disclaimer that I don’t know jack about music. I had never heard of The Afghan Whigs until Tim presented me with his copy of Gentlemen as my first assignment for this “column.” I went through a phase when I was in middle school where I got really, really obsessed with Nirvana, because I was angsty as fuck back then and always hungry for new music, but I don’t really know anything else about grunge music. And even though I dub myself a huge 90s music fan, I lean more to the side of 90s pop music and have never heard of any of the obscure 90s bands that Tim tries to talk to me about. (If you’re into obscure 90s bands, though, you should listen to Tim’s Dig Me Out Podcast.)
Anyway, Tim gave me this album because the idea with Learning Curve is to stimulate the English major part of my brain that doesn’t get put to use that often anymore now that I have graduated and work in a mail room and stuff. He wanted me to pay attention to the lyrics, namely how the Whigs managed to pretty discreetly talk about sexuality, and specifically sexually transmitted diseases, on this album at a time when that sort of thing wasn’t really brought up in music.
I liked this album from the first listen because of the simultaneously raw and catchy riffs on the first couple of tracks, but I’m not a huge fan of the vocals and was turned off by how angsty and morose the album feels. I found that listening to this album in its entirety left me feeling pretty gloomy, which is a feeling I get plenty of on my own, so I generally try to steer away from moody music that aggravates that condition. The lyrics are fairly simple for the most part, and there is definitely an undertone of raunchiness that comes through in a lot of the songs. With pain, sickness, and lying as repeating themes, these guys really seem to have written an album that epitomizes the sexual despair of the early 90s in a pretty direct way. I can’t help but be reminded of Nirvana, because like I said, they’re the only grunge band that I know anything about, but the really raw and raunchy feeling of this album makes me think of Nirvana songs like Heart-Shaped Box and Drain You.
The metaphor of the “monster” is the easiest one to hone in on on this album, with the refrain that appears in both “If I Were Going” and “Debonair”:
It don’t bleed and it don’t breathe
It’s locked its jaws and now it’s swallowing
It’s in our heart, it’s in our heads
It’s in our love, baby, it’s in our bed
As Tim said during one of our only brief conversations about this album, “they’re not talking about love there…it’s something much darker than that.” The idea of us as humans being victims to this monster- the monster of sexuality and all the disease and emotional despair that it brings- is one that’s consistent throughout the album, and it’s celebrated through all the usual cliches about love- feeling trapped, wanting different things, searching for some happy medium of truth and honesty that’s a lot easier to grasp in theory than in practice. But when this album came out in 1993, I guess those things weren’t really as cliche as they feel to me today, and The Afghan Whigs were doing something edgy and at least somewhat innovative by tying in disease as a theme of this album, however discreetly done. This is made all the more relevant with the increasing AIDS awareness around that time and all the new complexities it brought to the issues of relationships and love and sex, as if those things aren’t complicated enough to begin with.
I enjoyed the straightforwardness of the lyrics on this album, but at the same time they were part of what made it feel like nothing special to me. The lyrics to “Be Sweet” actually made me laugh out loud because of their crassness, with Greg Dulli growling:
Ladies, let me tell you about myself: I got a dick for a brain
And my brain is gonna sell my ass to you
Now I’m okay, but in time I’ll find I’m stuck
‘Cause she wants love, and I still want to fuck
Really? I mean, I’m a person who appreciates the blunt approach, but this just feels a little too dry and egotistical and stubbornly masculine to me. It’s like, I get it Dulli, you’ve got 99 problems and a bitch ain’t one, but let’s review the list and talk about how “herpes” and “heroin addiction” probably make appearances and let’s weigh whether or not we think those things are more destructive than love. I guess that’s why I just couldn’t fully get on board with this album- even though I like it musically and found the cryptic quality of the lyrics interesting, it felt so anti-love to me, and I had a really hard time finding the redeeming tug at the heartstrings that I think every album needs, especially one that has as much angst and moodiness as this album has to compensate for. Greg Dulli seems like an emotionless, addicted, disease-ridden dude who would not be very much fun to hang out with. I’m just saying.
The only time I felt like Dulli was digging himself out of the heartless hole that he had dug into with songs like “Be Sweet” and “Debonair” was on the track “When We Two Parted,” where the lyrics and the song itself indicate at least some sort of tangible heartbreak in contrast to the emotionlessness I felt on the other tracks. This line really got me: “If I inflict the pain, then baby, only I can comfort you.” That really sums up a lot of the baggage that seems to be central to this album- the destructive nature of relationships, and the never ending give and take that seems to ultimately leave you feeling empty. Alright, okay, so maybe I’m starting to understand the angst a little more, but that’s just it: this album was too angsty for me. I think I would have loved it when I was fifteen and starved for the emotional simplicity and defeated sarcasm of lines like “Let me in, I’m cold- all messed up and nowhere to go.” Yeah, I would have eaten that shit up in high school, but now it just feels a bit jaded to me, having moved on past the stage where I like to wallow in gloomy music and overanalyze seemingly simple lyrics to find the deeper, darker metaphors.
The one track that will keep this album from falling into the abyss of ‘all the music on my computer that I never listen to but still refuse to delete’ is the song called “My Curse,” which features guest vocals by Marcy Mays. This song is positively HAUNTING and I love it. It also builds on the theme of unhealthy relationships (unhealthy both emotionally and physically, with all the disease and stuff) and how love enslaves us, with Mays wailing out: “Slave, I only use as a word to describe the special way I feel for you.” Damn. That’s good poetry. And she’s begging her lover to hurt her, wailing “your kisses scourge me” and talking about how her lover’s perfume is like hyssop to her. I had to look that one up, but hyssop is apparently an herb with a strong, bitter flavor that was used in Hebrew purification rituals…like I said, poetry.