Proud tradition suggests that I open a review of a new Greg Dulli album with some detailed hypothetical about the man’s sheer sexual force — that he will ‘seduce your woman,’ that he will meet her at a motel on the outskirts of New Orleans, that it will be strangely beautiful and bathed in yellow light — but his libido has always been a little more complicated than that. The final track on The Twilight Singers’ 2003 album Blackberry Belle, “Number Nine,” was also its best: Mark Lanegan guested as the sandpaper-voiced victim, alone, barely moving, in dialogue with his own addiction, as played by Greg Dulli. “You fucker,” Lanegan groans. “I ain’t myself anymore.” Dulli dances out of reach. “Come on, boy. Don’t be such a baby and maybe I’ll bail you out,” later divulging, “I’m gonna make you blind.” There’s no easy word for how this makes the listener feel, when Dulli straddles the line between the human and the chemical, but the man absolutely has the pipes for it. No surprise that this libido (if you want to call it that) subsumed The Afghan Whigs and practically divorced them from the grunge tradition, nor any surprise that, after an idiosyncratic first album, The Twilight Singers’ career felt like a natural continuation of the Whigs’.
Last we heard from Dulli was a well-advised album with Lanegan as The Gutter Twins. Saturnalia’s most successful moments were spare and gospel-inflected, but a few post-grunge mires really relegated its overarching/lasting effect to ‘relentlessly bleak.’ Dynamite Steps could easily be seen as Saturnalia’s foil; Lanegan (who’s back yet again on octave-divvy “Be Invited,” fused with Dulli more artfully than ever) thinks Dulli sounds happier now; Dulli himself has been touting the album’s 70s AM-rock influence. But let’s not forget where these guys set the bar. Really, at its ‘happiest,’ Dynamite Steps is just The National with a very different singer: warm pianos, delayed guitars, thundering drums, crescendos whose ripples the listener feels from a mile away. By any measure, The Twilight Singers’ most band-oriented album is beautifully produced.
But we need to talk about these crescendos, because they’re both a blessing and a curse. Dulli knows how to write a damn good song, clearly, and he executes it particularly brilliantly on the title track closer, which rises out of gorgeous ambience and leaps cathartically to higher and higher peaks. (I’m the sort who’d compare it structurally to “Poor Places,” but take that with a grain of salt.) The band funnels its best ideas into this one track, not the least genius of which is a bass ‘flub’ that gets looped into a transition. Yet in other places, I wish the standard instrumentalists would get out of the room, leave the sultan alone with his feelings. “Get Lucky,” one of the only songs that revolves around its lyrical content, would’ve been even more powerful if it had stuck for its duration with the spare piano-voice setup. “Never Seen No Devil” teases the listener with a bluesy expanse before laying a full-band sound on thick. Same thing with the album’s single, “On the Corner,” with its drum machine and “Gimme Shelter” smoke rings more of a hook than a look.
These all operate powerfully as songs, but over the course of the album you’ll witness the worst thing that can happen to a well-developed song: the development loses meaning. Look at it this way: History has shown that Dulli works particularly well (a) collaboratively (hence the pluralized moniker), (b) performing covers, and (c) enacting some sort of Plot. Compare the opener of Dynamite Steps to that of the Whigs’ 1993 concept album Gentlemen; the former is an almost rave-y blast that leaves you hungover, the other is all cryptic portent, filled with some creeping sense that something’s on its way and may never arrive. Dynamite Steps is coated in cinematic tropes, like any Dulli project, but its pacing suggests a montage of shorts rather than a larger narrative arc. “The Beginning of the End” confounds this by providing the album’s tastiest surprises in rapid succession: its trifecta begins with an almost shoegazey blanket of sound, and just when you’re thinking the climax came way too early on this one, it cuts out, yields to a lone acoustic guitar, which in turn trips into a minor-key funk-sewer as Dulli sneers, “You better shut your eyes/ It’s where your life begins.”
Fair enough. The New Orleans that’s the most apropos thing ever to happen to Dulli is also the New Orleans whose story can be told in three minutes, or conjured with one’s eyes closed. Makes sense that portions of this album were recorded in L.A., one of his life’s “significant locales”; but I have a hunch that he doesn’t make it out to Ohio much any more. Too much confusion, too many demons there, and not the Biblical sort. With Dynamite Steps, Dulli has delivered the fully-realized statement of self-mythology that his fans knew he was capable of, strutting his stuff like agéd legends who’ve long since been internalized, making it look easier than it should be. “Careful when you look into my eyes, you’ll turn to stone,” he tempts us in “Get Lucky,” promising, “I still have one card I’ve yet to show.” As a dude who’s made a poker face of his own psyche, he might not be too thrilled that he’s still, inevitably, leaving his listeners calcified.