posted: February 9, 2011
Greg Dulli is the rare kind of artist who invites audiences to peer into the nether regions of his darkest thoughts. He uses albums as cathartic therapy, often teetering next to perilous edges and occasionally stepping across them. At his best, the vocalist/multi-instrumentalist provides listeners the type of intoxicating thrill that accompanies taking impetuous risks, witnessing back-alley exchanges, and being privy to secretive codes that reveal sensitive information.
In song, Dulli deals with lingering personal demons in the manner that professional athletes confront their most lethal opponents: Head-on and fully engaged, nerves raw and exposed, his mind solely focused on the subject at hand. Determined to do whatever it takes to prevail, he’ll pay the costs later. When his cinematic records conclude, you’re thankful for the visit albeit grateful that your soul doesn’t reside in such haunting places. But the rush and reward one gets from going there? Addicting.
More than a decade removed from playing bravado frontman for the Afghan Whigs—a peerless group that still stands apart for resisting the nostalgic reunion circuit currently courting and bedding almost every other 90s rock band—Dulli remains invested in leading the Twilight Singers while also taking time for the Gutter Twins (his side project with Mark Lanegan) and pursuits as a photographer, writer, and bar proprietor. Nearly five years in the making, Dynamite Steps checks in as the Twilight Singers’ most cohesive, diversified, dynamic, and captivating record. It’s also among Dulli’s most confessional, stark, cautionary, and savage works; no small feat for a musician who once admitted to feeling as if he was “pulling the bones out of [his] skin” onstage every night in 1993 while touring behind the Afghan Whigs opus Gentlemen.
Never at a loss for biting one-liners and penetrating storytelling, the 45-year-old enfant terrible on Dynamite Steps inhabits the roles of a malicious provocateur, tortured spirit, calculating predator, and undercover rival—identities he’s assumed before, but seldom as viciously, passionately, or authoritatively. “Born a liar, obfuscate/Step aside while I manipulate,” Dulli hisses as if embodying the scourging voice of an evil subconscious, brushing aside any hope for peaceful reconciliation on “Waves,” a heat-blistered tune whose lashing violence and distorted commotion match the threatening wordplay. Not that he’s always in control of the sinister menace or afflicting situation. “Baby pulls me even closer/Tangled like the web she weaves/Shaking off her demons/Now they’re coming after me” Dulli divulges amidst the down-home pluck of dobro strings, mournful sigh of violins, and floating vocal refrains on “Never Seen No Devil.” Throughout, Twilight Singers contrast beautiful melodies and vulgar intentions to supreme effect.
“You’ll be lied to/You will suffer/I’m gonna get you back/Wait and see,” Dulli cries in his distinctive soulful croon on “She Was Stolen,” a sanguine piano-driven ballad that doubles as a fete accompli. On the hook-laden summons “On the Corner,” he juxtaposes gospel commands with lustful declarations, instructing a target to “Spread your legs/Insert your alibi” as a Mellotron hums and guitars rattle in the background. Sent up with the singer’s falsetto, the soaring song bears resemblance to the R&B-leaning material off the Afghan Whigs’ 1995 LP Black Love and draws from the same well of sources.
As has always been one of Dulli’s trademarks, black-music strains swirl amidst highly atmospheric soundscapes inked with electronica, rock, chamber, symphonic, and psychedelic colors. Arrangements flirt with densely packed layers of sound while exhaling spare, fragile accents that augment rise-and-fall crescendos and built-in drama. Textures abound; notes practically take on a physical shape. And vocally, Dulli is in peak form. He demonstrates a poise that casts looming shadows on ominous fare such as the creeping “Get Lucky,” funk-throbbing “Last Night In Town,” and “Be Invited,” a spooked fever-dream duet with Lanegan that’s washed with uneasy vibes and murderous implications.
Filled with scourge, deception, danger, revenge, death, and sin, Dulli’s narratives are nonetheless less linear and direct than in the past. He now pens verses in a more abstract fashion, connecting words via feeling and setting, the bundling together of individual words or short phrases intensifying the degrees of intrigue, coercion, and surprise. Seldom is the approach more effective than on the title track. A widescreen epic that finds the protagonist gain the upper hand by elimination, cunning, and circumstance, it closes Dynamite Steps with the cautious optimism of a vampiric figure who’s seen and knows too much to vest blind faith in relationships or love.–Bob Gendron