Uptown again: riding shotgun in some dealer’s Chrysler, peeling out of a motel parking lot with the darkness at the edge of town nipping at your bumper. And you may ask yourself, “How did I get here?” Luckily, your driver has the answer, because Greg Dulli albums never bury the lede: “Whenever you’re here, you’re alive.”
That’s the first line on the sixth album by the Twilight Singers, led by one of the most rewarding, formally inventive, and charismatic songwriters and performers to emerge from ’90s alternative rock. For almost 20 years, Dulli has been making quagmires, bad deals, late nights, fuck-ups, felonies, and emotional terrorism sound like a party. But on Dynamite Steps, despite that opener, it seems like someone might have finally shot out the lights.
During the gradual breakup of the unbreakable Afghan Whigs (as they named their career retrospective), Dulli debuted the Twilight Singers under a blue light, scented candles burning, with Twilight as Played by the Twilight Singers. That 2000 album, co-produced by Fila Brazilia—a down-tempo duo whose name rings out in cafés and clothing boutiques across parts of London (10 years ago) . . . (actually, they’re not bad)—was a morose and muted affair, full of synth strings, off-brand Timbaland programming, and falsetto whispers about how he once wanted to be king. It was at once Dulli’s break from the “Motown as played by Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life band” sound that made the Whigs’ 1998 swan song, 1965, such an utter joy, and the first sign of the musical restlessness that has defined his output since.
But as the Singers turned into a real band—if one with a fluid membership encompassing more than a dozen present and former members, including Pigeonhead’s Shawn Smith, who presumably left to sit on a pile of “Battleflag” money and listen to Zapp—their sound, understandably, began to resemble that of the late-period Whigs. 2003’s Blackberry Belle was a sleek, tuned-up pop-rock record, with tributes to the Who and songs that could have been sold to the Goo Goo Dolls for a pretty penny. The follow-up, and still the band’s peak, was 2006’s Powder Burns, a terrifyingly accurate account of one bender too many, told from a variety of perspectives (dealer, user, etc.) that still found enough time to throw in an OutKast reference, keeping listeners on the toes of their dancing shoes.
I mention the Triple Stacks nod because, despite having a go-to palette of sonic tricks and recurring themes both musical (Hüsker Dü guitars run through ’60s soul arrangements) and lyrical (sex, drugs, and co-dependency), Dulli has always been at his best when his ears were open, even seemingly in jest. One of the Whigs’ greatest songs, 1965‘s “Crazy,” features an even-then-anachronistic but still amusing clip of Diddy asking, “Who’s hot? Who’s not?”; a song deeper into the album slyly invokes Nas. And one of Dulli’s greatest gifts is to make the most depressing, grimly accurate material sound, at times, ecstatic, uplifting, and cathartic.
Dynamite Steps, though, sounds somewhat cloistered: Cut off from the outside world, it hands out the uplift sparingly. While it may have been “shot on location” (Dulli the ex-film-student’s preferred substitute for “recorded”) everywhere from Joshua Tree to L.A. to New Orleans, it’s filtered through a stained-glass lens regardless. He’s nothing if not indulgent, reveling in sin and confession with equal amounts of passion. This is, after all, a man who openly admitted to having a dick for a brain back in his Whigs days, and sounded like he was getting as much of a kick out of confessing it as having it in the first place. But on Dynamite, he’s not just stopping by church for a quick penance—he has decided to stay a while.
“All rise with me, all take your place,” he sings in “On the Corner,” one of many sermons featured on this very religious and, subsequently, very dark album. Superficially, the songs feel like your usual Greg Dulli tracks, depicting people stifled by relationships that have become simultaneously unsustainable and inescapable (if this guy ever wrote a Modern Love column, it would probably just read, “Kill yourself”). But it doesn’t take a believer to see the hand of God and the work of his fallen angel all over the place. “Get Lucky,” for instance, combines the high-stakes emotional poker that Dulli’s characters often play with new, nearly mythic overtones: “Careful when you look into my eyes/You’ll turn to stone/And I am not that strong to let you go.” Elsewhere, on “Be Invited,” an addict goes way past bottom, plunging into hell itself as Dulli prophesizes, “Soon you’ll be stealing from the odds and ends who once were friends but now you demonize” before warning, “There’s something at work here.”
It’s not really surprising that Outkast references and Nas shout-outs are nonexistent here; the music matches the mood. Gorgeously produced by the Syndicate, many of these tracks are piano-driven, mid-tempo dirges that take a while to get rolling; occasionally, as on “Be Invited,” they just circle the block. Often, the songs start with Dulli alone, wallowing somewhere with his keyboard set to “screwed-and-chopped Journey chords,” scaring his flock with wounded, howled tales of falling into the fire.
And despite some snatches of light—the unhinged, serrated guitars of “Waves” (harkening all the way back to the Whigs’ Congregation) and the lovely, Ani DiFranco–assisted “Blackbird and the Fox”—Dynamite waits until the very end to allow us release. The closing song, title track, and album high point has a decidedly sunnier disposition, and for good reason: There’s no more pain to feel, no more lies to tell, no more promises to break. As handclaps punctuate our singer’s invocation of “reckoning,” a classic Dulli crescendo envelopes you: strings swirling around buzzing guitars, and the sound building as the story’s ending is laid bare: “You’re never going to feel like you felt last night/Ever wonder where went your guiding light?/Wake up in a field with a second sight. . . . You’ll love me.” Yeah, well, catharsis aside, here’s what we learn: Satan is real. Heaven is whenever.