Just as moody and noirish as the band’s best work.
Gentlemen (1993) showed the Afghan Whigs at their most primal, offering a sharp-tongued, misanthropic take on grunge that melded R&B swagger with gutter stomp college rock. Some 25 years later, the reformed iteration of the band returns with a new album featuring a refined sound and matured atmospherics.
In Spades is just as moody and noirish as the band’s best work, but that aesthetic has shifted. The album’s lean 10-track, 38-minute run time is an all killer, no filler time capsule of where the band is at currently. It’s a sultry snapshot with a spooky undercurrent.
From the cinematic opener “Birdland” with its jazzy groove and lush instrumentation, it’s clear frontman Greg Dulli is chasing his signature rasp and peculiar perspective down with smoother tunes. The strings and horns are a welcome addition, feeling like an HDR+, IMAX-y extrapolation of what the band used to produce in the ‘90s. But that dreamy prologue leads right into “Arabian Nights,” a scuzzy thrill ride that feels like trip hop coming out the other end of a filthy meat grinder. There’s still a polish to the execution, but it’s clear the gang’s not afraid to get messy.
Of the slicker cuts on this album, the swaggering piano-backed “Demon in Profile” might be the best. It’s sexy in that sweaty, instantly regretful way. Dulli’s penchant for sparse, evocative lyrics proves indispensable here, painting a rich picture with a startling economy of word craft. From the opening lines – the way he croons “Criminal, I know you’re bad” – you know you’re in for a treat. The song sounds like what an ill-advised quickie in the center of a pentagram in a dive bar’s back room might feel like the morning after; when you’re piecing together the hungover shards of your memory and stitching the recollections together, a pulsing bass line your only epoxy.
By the time “The Spell” dips its toe further into the supernatural imagery and pulpy wordplay, In Spades starts to feel like a cock rock take on a graphic novel from Vertigo Comics. You can just imagine John Constantine gripping an unlit cigarette between his lips, oozing magic, malice and sex appeal. It’s undeniably thrilling to hear a vocalist and storyteller tangentially responsible for Interpol, The Weeknd and countless other anti-hero-flouting city mouse musicians churning out such a strong set of songs this late in the game.
But it’s also a little strange to hear a track like “Light as a Feather,” which fits the after party in the afterlife vibe so well, give way to “I Got Lost,” a big heart ballad Dulli wrote as a response to bandmate David Rosser being diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer. It’s big and bold, impassioned and vulnerable in a way Dulli tends to hint at but rarely gives full-throated air time to. The song seems out of place at first, but upon repeat spins it only proves to strengthen the whole, showing off the range and grace this new version of the band possesses with its sum total of experience and experiences.