We’ve followed Greg Dulli’s perpetual path of ascent through descent for three decades across his various musical incarnations. Until now, Dulli’s reckoned his emotional and spiritual worlds with the physical, but on In Spades, The Afghan Whigs’ eighth album – and second since their 2012 reformation – Dulli takes us on a trip down the rabbit hole of his subconscious where he grapples with memory, dreams, and fantasy.
The warped doo-wop of lead track, “Birdland”, named for the avian-themed street names of his childhood neighborhood, begins “I was a child,” immediately setting us squarely outside of present time and place. “Birdland” is also one of the most dramatic stylistic anomalies in The Whigs’ (and, indeed, Dulli’s) oeuvre, portending that In Spades is not a typical Afghan Whigs album. The band’s reunion album, 2014’s Do To The Beast, featured the band’s most accomplished and diverse arrangements in their impressive catalog. In Spades ups that ante by reiterating these qualities of its predecessor and refining them, tightening the songs up while sacrificing none of their range.
Where In Spades catches lightning is the interplay between Dulli’s vocals and guitarists Dave Rosser’s and Jon Skibic’s symbiotic leads. The bruising “Arabian Heights” slithering slide work goads Dulli’s paranoia while wailing fills tease along Dulli’s impeccably imperfect falsetto on the greasy, unhinged funk of “Light As A Feather”. Always an emotive vocalist, Dulli’s manic swings from hushed murmur to unfettered wail on In Spades makes every prior outing seem downright tame and often keys the albums’ tracks to turn on a dime. “Demon In Profile” scales the heights from brooding pensiveness to horn-punctuated power pop euphoria while Dulli climbs “Oriole”s winding strings from its earthy acoustic outset to its cloud-laden climax.
Lyrically, Dulli peppers In Spades with references to people and events that are hidden or unclear, constructing a tense, inscrutable dreamlike world. Dulli has openly offered that portions of the album are allusions to recent memories and dreams of his childhood. The child and satyr in “Birdland”, two manifestations of Dulli’s past reconciling with each other, agree to “get together when the feeling is right” while he clamors for palpability of this world on “Toy Automatic” asking, “Tell me, is this real? Everything I feel?” In Spades’ densest moment of gravity comes on the swirling ballad “I Got Lost,” written by Dulli in the wake of Rosser’s inoperable cancer diagnosis during the album’s recording. Here, Dulli helplessly implores his friend to “state your intent to get back on your knees,” while its sobering acceptance of reality leads us to the album’s ultimate conclusion.
For all the blind wandering and grasping at phantoms Dulli does throughout In Spades, the overarching reality for him and all of us is that, however mindful one may be, the physical present is a relentlessly and impossibly elusive beast, one that we struggle to preserve in each of its waking moments but are eternally destined to only relive as apparitions staring back at us in our own minds. No doubt, Dulli’s resignation to this fact on album closer, “Into The Floor”, has him simply declaring, “I’ll remember you always this way” to his child and satyr selves, to Birdland, to his brother in arms, David Rosser, and to his present self every moment, every day.
The Afghan Whigs of In Spades isn’t your father’s Afghan Whigs and isn’t even Do To The Beast’s Afghan Whigs. What they are is a fleeting manifestation of all their former selves as Dulli has transcended the desire to reinvent The Whigs’ wheels, he simply remembers its past as it was. With any decades-old band recently reunited, it’s impossible to ignore the question of whether what we’ve last heard is the last we will ever hear of them. Regardless, In Spades sees Greg Dulli synthesizing all of his musical and thematic elements seemingly into everything he’s ever wanted.