No one ever credits them for it, but in the music critic imagination, you can’t help but wonder if the present moment of debauched neo-soul would have existed quite this way without the Afghan Whigs. Before the Weeknd’s early EPs put his signature on a certain brand of hard drugs, relentless self-loathing and animal sex, there was an album called Gentlemen, and a band with a simultaneous regard for Motown and a willingness to give voice to the male id.
One senses the Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli knew this when he took to covering Frank Ocean on the band’s reformation, that he had some demon pride in his role as an uncredited forefather of scorched-soul pop. When the band recorded Do to the Beast in 2014, though, somehow the emphasis fell a bit more on the crunchy, “grunge” side of their legacy—maybe not Up In It, but not Black Love, either. It wasn’t a rusty return by any stretch, but it was hard to map into the arc of what the band meant reignited nearly two decades later.
Coming off rounds of touring, anniversary reissues of their classic records and the dark revelation of guitarist Dave Rosser’s cancer diagnosis, In Spades carries a few more of the maniacal stretches that have marked the band’s most interesting moments, especially in the use of Dulli’s voice. For every really beautifully sung passage, there are a few that are almost frightening in their thinness and strain. In the later moments of “Toy Automatic” his falsetto takes the strangest quaver over the trumpet lines, plowing into the broken opening of “Oriole.” There’s no song here quite as catchy as “Uptown Again,” but they all have a claw at you as you pass by.
The great thing about In Spades, is that the Afghan Whigs have fully recommitted to their singular, weird hurter-and-hurt dynamic. Cover art on, there’s a creepy desperation that ducks and slobbers through the album, and it’s usually gripping. Take the opener – “Birdland,” a song that what a more emotionally twisted Bon Iver would make if cornered, which then rolls into the caterwaul of “Arabian Heights.” While sonically none of this quite falls in with, say, a Sampha album, you can’t help but love the sense that Dulli always knows a bit more than he’s letting on. Long may he slither.