Like his affinity for stretching melodic and conceptual themes through the carefully staked course of an album, Greg Dulli’s love affair with soul and R&B music goes way back. His thematic sense coalesced most profoundly on Gentlemen, The Whigs’ 1993 Elektra debut, on which Dulli’s trademark Camel-inflected voice invoked the band’s philosophic cornerstone: the seedier side of love, sex, fear and joy. The melodic heart of the album’s title track haunts the entirety of the record, casting thick clouds of tearfully angry guitar to be pitted against John Curley’s soul-drenched grooves. Two years, a single and an EP later, Dulli’s R&B roots came to the surface on 1996’s Black Love, an aptly titled ode to the bump in Dulli’s grind. The album received little fanfare from critics who failed to understand The Whigs’ decision to tour employing various configurations of horns and strings, but Black Love succeeded in showcasing Dulli as a major force in indie rock infrastructure and its future. On 1965, the two elements—singular themes and R&B cues—come crashing together with equal force, framed by a bleached skeleton of staunch indie guitar rock harking back to The Afghan Whigs’ days on a then-fledgling Sub Pop label. A ragged tapestry of sinewy soul clings to bone in just the right places, making it possible for Dulli’s melodies to animate, soar and then dive-bomb directly for the underbelly of life experience common to us all. More often than not, The Whigs hit their mark, sending shards of urgency splintering with terminal accuracy toward the jugular of each track to come.
It would be easy to characterize 1965 as The Whigs’ crowning achievement, or even as Dulli’s personal masterpiece. But if the band have taught us anything during their nine-year career, it’s that it doesn’t pay to jump the gun. Dulli and the Whigs crew have never lived up to any expectation other than their own, nor have they made records based on their laurels or in the image of their previous work alone. Each new release opens a new, revealing chapter, greater depth of character and a more detailed backstory, all of which helped save them from the grunge quagmire their early work seemed on a collision course for. There’s a freshness in their presentation of the dark side if life that keeps the yearning and hunger burning as hot and as painfully as the fire that envelopes their records. 1965 is the rule, rather than the exception.