Greg Dulli might be an incorrigible, inveterate, unreformed con artist, but those who’ve been loyally following him are probably more than happy to have enabled him all this time. More than two decades after founding R&B-styled grunge band Afghan Whigs, the Twilight Singers frontman is still working all the angles, telling tall tales of peccadilloes and sexcapades the kinds of which indie hipsters and wallflowers can only live out vicariously through his songs. Yet beyond being an honest-to-goodness bar-brawling lothario, Dulli gets away with murder, so to speak, because his stories are complex and complicated, not just scandalous and over-the-top. So even though Dulli has admitted he’s got a dick for a brain, as he once infamously sang on the Whigs’ high-water mark Gentlemen, he’s also got heart, which he gets torn out over and over again, whether by the romantic conquests that slip from his grasp or, even more often, by himself.
It should go without saying, then, that the Twilight Singers’ latest, Dynamite Steps, doesn’t exactly break the vicious circle Dulli has been trapped in for the longest time, as if anyone would ever think he’d find his way onto the straight and narrow. Showing he’s back from a five-year hiatus with a vengeance, the ominous opener “Last Night in Town” sets the album’s dark tone, as Dulli gives voice to the demons hounding him, calling out, “The devil says you can do what you like.” But what makes Dulli a compelling songwriter and performer is that he keeps his cards close to his chest so you can’t tell from his sneering drawl whether he’s giving into temptation or barely keeping himself in check or hedging his bets by splitting the difference. In effect, Dulli’s warbly, imperfect soul man croon reflects his inner turmoil, powerful and affecting in the way it expresses how he strives and yearns to be better than he is.
So whether he’s looking for trouble or trouble just naturally finds him, Dulli seems doomed to repeat his own personal history from song to song, album to album, though that’s probably the way his voyeuristic listeners like it. Recalling Afghan Whigs at their most thrilling and majestic, “On the Corner” goes to show that nothing good comes from hanging out on the street too long, building up the tension and mood with syncopated drum machines, pensive keyboards, and stabs of strings before crescendoing with a frenzy of wah-wahing guitars. It’s also where the smooth operating Dulli from Gentlemen makes his cameo, summing up his m.o. suggestively: “Lick your lips / Desire / The liar.” And he’s probably still loitering on that same corner or another one just like it on the brooding “Never Seen No Devil”, since Dulli seems even more menacing with come-ons that are somehow more lurid (“Baby, want some milk and honey / Ask me and you shall receive”) and judgments all the more damning (“If you do unto others / You will die by your own hand”). In this case, the music isn’t just soul-influenced rock, but it’s soulful, even if Dulli’s a sinner beyond redemption.
That’s what makes Dulli a lot deeper and more fascinating than the boozing, womanizing front he often puts up. Sure, lines like “I can feel you from the inside now” on the thrashing, driving “Waves” might come off like the stuff of frat-rock, but there’s more going on with Dulli beneath the surface because he knows there’s a price to pay for his hard living — “What you foresee / Is what you’ll get,” he puts it. That also seems to be the moral of the mid-tempo “Get Lucky”, which uses the title’s double entendre less to boast about his prowess than to marvel at his good fortune beating the odds and making it as long as he has. But it’s on the sprawling “The Beginning of the End” that the devil and angel on Dulli’s shoulders are locked in their toughest battle: Intro’ing to soaring feedback and off-kilter shoegazer effects, the track at first feels like Dulli has come to an epiphany or, at the very least, found some peace of mind. But that’s before he acknowledges that coming to terms with what he’s done isn’t that easy, as he sees both sides by explaining, “Some seek a light / Some creep at night.” In the end, the title is telling, describing someone who puts so much of himself into his craft that every song sounds like it could be his last.
If there’s any way Dynamite Steps could take things a bit further, it’s for Dulli to hand his stories a little more to guest stars like his Gutter Twins collaborator Mark Lanegan — a kindred spirit with his own cross to bear — and talented multi-instrumentalist Petra Haden. In particular, giving Ani DiFranco more room to explore her voice on the almost duet “Blackbird and the Fox” would’ve added another dimension to the album, especially since both artists are strong enough to push each other to dig deeper. Then again, Dynamite Steps is probably a journey that Dulli can only take on his own, since it’s up to him whether he wants to keep up his reputation or run away from it. But whatever fork in the road Dulli takes, one thing’s for sure: Dynamite Steps lives up to the expectations he’s set, at least musically speaking.