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Monday, February 02, 2009 

Looking back 2008: The Twilight Singers

(In which Ian mostly avoids writing about any sort of 2008 best-of list in favour of writing up, in no particular order, ten (or so) albums from past years he spent time listening to, thinking about or discovering during 2008. An occasional series, but one which will hopefully be finished over the next few weeks rather than abandoned.)

The Twilight Singers - Blackberry Belle (2003)

Greg Dulli really is an asshole. Or at least that's what his songs make you think, but it's kind of a double bind. Part of the reason we know he's an asshole is because he sneers and wails it all over his music, because he so proudly and openly damns himself as the worst of men. I'm not actually suggesting he's wrong (between his take on relationships and his admitted drug problems, I'm sure he's a barrel of laughs to date, or even just sleep with), but even if there's no mitigation in being your own harshest critic, there is an element of uncertainty in it.

I tend to think of the Six By Seven* song "Bad Man," whose fury is so apocalyptic that the lyrics alone don't do it justice. Chris Olley howls "I have a soul to change" with such desperate heat that you get the impression he suspects and fears that he's lying. Dulli's genius is to do the same but in reverse - he insists so starkly, even arrogantly, that he doesn't have a soul to save you can't help but wonder. And that's what makes him interesting - you can understand why the Olley of "Bad Man" would have a stake in denying he's soulless, but what frightens Dulli about not being a total shit?

If there's an answer to be found in his spotty but intermittantly brilliant career with the Afghan Whigs, the Twilight Singers and now the Gutter Twins (I haven't heard the latter, but among what I have heard only Black Love, 1965, and this album truly reach the heights Dulli ought to be capable of), I think it's probably nestled in the depths of "The Killer" off of Blackberry Belle.

I'm not totally sure why the song references Jerry Lee Lewis (god knows Dulli loves the history of rock badasses enough it's deliberate), but the narrator is the same kind of guy as on every other song of the album, hell, of the career, except he's a little more honest. He's still candid about his desire to possess and exploit, his ravenous hunger, and during the gentle pulses of the verse sections he's got the same kind of casual, sad-eyed menace Dulli conjures up effortlessly. But when "The Killer" explodes into chorus something else entirely happens. That chorus is proceeded by the resigned "your driver's waiting for you," but instead of something about leaving or faithlessness or resentment we get suddenly

"AND I CAUGHT A FEVER
A HOLY FIRE
'TIL I WAS CRAWLING ON THE CEILING
COME OUT OF YOUR HOLE
I KNOW YOU KNOW
YOU KNOW I KNOW
I WANNA GO"

Dulli's usual metier is lust, sure, but he so nakedly craves not just sex but transcendance in "The Killer" that it's kind of painful. The second time through he tells her "that's why I need you to catch on fire / I want you to burn me 'til I feel it" but it's not a callback to a million songs where heat=sex. He admits, "I know you know which way to go/I want you to show me, so I can steal it." He's lost, directionless, miserable, looking for someone to tell him what to do. Having a soul, being a man instead of a lothario, means a kind of hunger that can't be assuaged by fucking or shooting up.

It'd be wrong to suggest that Blackberry Belle is Dulli's human album (there's humanity cousing throughout 1965 and some of the songs here are as magnificently sleazy as anything he's ever done), but even as he's singing about all night encounters on "Teenage Wristband" and "Martin Eden" (named for, err, the Jack London novel) or the kind of alluring personal desolation he always channels on "St. Gregory" and "Follow You Down" there's a broken desperation to the album that feels real. Dulli's schtick has always been both a put-on and sincere, a way to get laid (that horny little "I got the devil in me, girl" on 1965's "John the Baptist") and a way to pre-empt criticism and also just the way the poor bastard is. Here he sounds more aware of it, and more in thrall to it, than ever before.

And then there's the moderately stunning "Fat City (Slight Return)," where a fatigued-beyond-caring Dulli sets out his personal ethos of "Kali nichta" apathetic self destruction (and like a lot of self-destructive romantics, he's doing it half because he knows one way or another you'll stop caring, might as well be on his terms):

"Why you take from a giver?
Why you gotta get high?
Why you watch a carwreck, motherfucker?
Cause it looks fun to die"

That "Fat City (Slight Return)" is only succeeded by the closing, Mark Lanegan-as-Satan (or Satan's victim) ballad "Number Nine" (wherein Lanegan crawls on the floor in lovelorn despair and Dulli tells him not to be such a baby - maybe I should check out the Gutter Twins) just renders Blackberry Belle even bleaker. Even though the music here is both inventive by Dulli's classicist standards (the answering machine tone-as-beat atmospherics of "Esta Noche" and "Teenage Wristband"'s thick grind are fantastic) and fantastically catchy as always, this is the album where Dulli bottoms out. And both because we're only experiencing it vicariously and because music has always been the place for us to blow up our own experiences and emotions to king or killer-sized, that makes it one of his best.


*(And there's a band who have been shit on by bad luck and history, eh? The run of albums from The Things We Make to The Way I Feel Today is still bruisingly intense after all these years, and 04 is just about as great. One of the great, and forgotten, UK rock bands of the 90s and 00s.)

Previously on looking back 2008:
Burial
Radiohead

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This describes the album so well. Blackberry Belle is so clearly Dulli's masterpiece, and every song on it is so perfectly constructed.

Thanks! I feel it's a little incomplete, honestly... wish I'd noted more explictly that the "I know you know/You know I know" bit I quoted from "The Killer" is so very characteristic of Dulli - he implicates the Other/the listener just as much as himself, most of the time. Only this time it's about something sad and broken rather than horny, which makes "The Killer" pretty much the best song he's ever done.

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Ian Mathers is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Stylus, the Village Voice, Resident Advisor, PopMatters, and elsewhere. He does stuff and it magically appears here.

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