Opening a record with the lyric “The sun don’t shine ’round here no more” provides no shock to longtime fans of Greg Dulli. Though the Afghan Whigs were pegged as one of the more comical rock bands of the 1980s and ’90s, the direction Dulli’s taken the Twilight Singers is for the more pensive audience. Lyrically and musically, 2003’s Blackberry Belle was a venture into the darker landscapes of unrequited love, rock tinged with a black heart in the way Johnny Cash brought a bitterness to country that maintained life on the I.V. drip of faith he carried with him.
Dulli has perfected the art of self-loathing, and with Powder Burns he has surpassed all expectations brought on from his previous releases. With an enhanced fervor, he pounds out the rhythm of “Forty Dollars” on the piano, singing “I’m just being honest.” That song, which contains the lines “I’ve got love for sale/ come on get some before it gets stale,” is a summation of the album’s theme. Not a man of patience, the record is aglow with a voice that has seen the depths of his own pit and has accepted it for what it is. His regrets, personal demons, and bad habits are all a holy trinity that exists by their interrelation. They are a system of checks and balances that allow him to create the kind of music that would confound most serious rock musicians that pretend to tap into the vein from which Dulli continuously finds his sources.
There are the songs where the composers publish all of their intentions to paint a certain picture for their audience. Atop that, there are songs that take little effort from the writer, in that they were simply born to play them. “Bonnie Brae” and “Underneath the Waves” are by far the album’s two epics, evenly spaced and highest in emotional peaks. Much in the way Tom Waits is legendary for becoming possessed by his poetry on stage and in studio, both of these tracks deliver Dulli to a heightened sense of musical catharsis.
The twelve tracks on Powder Burns intertwine like lovers awkwardly holding hands. Even in “The Conversation,” one of the record’s quietest moments, Dulli exchanges vocals with Joseph Arthur, singing “The secret of my mystery/ will never see the dawn” over violins, cello and viola. The song melts into the title track, which includes Ani DiFranco belting out the chorus with Dulli, proclaiming that there is no escape for the world in which the Twilight Singers subsist.
The Twilight Singers Web site (streaming audio)