To borrow a phrase from Jack London’s 1909 novel Martin Eden, which is a book that Twilight Singers frontman Greg Dulli once found profoundly inspirational, the Black Out the Windows box set represents the band’s “work performed.” Did you appreciate these recordings when they were new? Or are you interested in them based on their reputation? Unlike Eden, a proletarian striver-turned-famous author who chided latecomers for sucking up to him after he achieved fame for work already performed, Dulli is more understanding of latecomer. If you weren’t around to appreciate the Twilight Singers’ albums when they first came out, he’s fine with that. This collection gives you a chance to perform loving the band all the same.
Dulli is best known for the seething, scorched-earth alt-rock of the Afghan Whigs, a band that flirted with the mainstream in the early-Nineties. With the Twilight Singers, a side project he debuted with the 2000 album Twilight as Played by The Twilight Singers, Dulli pulled things back and focused more on dark nights of the soul. Now that he’s rededicated himself to the Whigs, he’s chosen to look back on the Singers, which turned out to be an equally meaningful artistic conduit.
Black Out the Windows/Ladies and Gentlemen, the Twilight Singers collects the group’s five studio LPs, the EP A Stitch in Time, and a disc of rarities that contains a lot of songs that should have come out during the band’s lifetime. It shows how the Twilight Singers smoldered where the Afghan Whigs blazed, since the music is almost uniformly hushed and dark. On each record, Dulli reveals just enough of his personal anguish to make you listen closer.
Perhaps exhausted by his own bluster with the Whigs, which formed in the Eighties, Dulli took a breath in the late Nineties and started writing more personal, quieter and, ahem, duskier tunes that felt more reflective than the “I got a dick for a brain” musings of the Whigs. (Composing tales of explosive toxic masculinity can be tiring, y’know.) The first demos he cut with Shawn Smith and Harold “Happy” Chichester leaked in the late Nineties and created a stir, thanks to their intimate, confessional nature. Here was the man who bellowed, “I’m not the man my actions would suggest” on the Whigs’ “Debonair” a few years earlier, actually coming off debonair for once.
On the Twilight Singers demo “Black Love,” one of the tracks on the box set’s Etcetera disc of rarities, Dulli props himself up on a piano with a “Year of the Cat”–style chord progression as he questions his worthiness: “Am I the only one for you? So tell me true, I’d kill for you.” He sounds lonely and desperate in a way he never could within the Whigs’ din and fury. Similarly, the Smith-penned “A Glass of You” sounds distant and ghostlike, as “Purple Rain”–like guitar chords twinkle around his voice. “Is there a world where nobody knows in your eyes?” Smith sings. (Or does he? The vocals are buried deep in the mix. Diffidence here is a choice.) And Smith sings “Fair Colonus,” an excerpt from the 1983 musical The Gospel at Colonus, in a falsetto a cappella, his voice becoming damaged as he summons Sophocles’ lament.
You can almost smell the cigarette smoke on the demo of “Deepest Shade,” a loungey piano ballad, as he pours his heart out almost literally. “Taste me, baby, as I bleed,” he sings in a low murmur, “All over you and me/The love unreal indeed/And I will love you until I die.” After the caustic irony of the Whigs, the sincerity is jarring. The recording is gorgeous in its intimacy, and it’s a mystery why the band never recorded it for an album.
In the liner notes, which contain rare photos and heartfelt testimonies from friends, former bandmates, and admirers, Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan recalled recording “Deepest Shade” with Mark Lanegan for the latter’s Imitations album. “This little heartbroken song, done on probably a fucked-up old four-track tape recorder, just took both Mark and I down,” he wrote. “You can visualize Greg balled up underneath his piano, whispering the words to this track, barely holding on … waiting for this song to save his life.”
Unfortunately, the band reworked and overworked many of the demos for their 2000 debut album, Twilight as Played by the Twilight Singers. The album had a peculiar sparkle to it since producers Fila Brazillia, an EDM duo from England, polished the songs too much. The R&B-leaning “Clyde” sounds more like latter-era Prince or Tony! Toni! Toné! than the unique production of the demos. And while Smith and Chichester got turns singing with Dulli here and there, it was clear that Dulli is the Ordained Singer of the Twilight since both would exit the band by 2003’s Blackberry Belle.
That album, the Singers’ masterpiece, opens with “Martin Eden” and the bleak lyrics that inspired the box set’s title: “Black out the windows, it’s party time.” It’s on Blackberry Belle where Dulli’s aspirations met his abilities, becoming something of an indie-rock Elvis Costello by blending caustic lyrics with restrained, occasionally jazzy rock and soulful backdrops. “There’s a riot going on,” he sings with a dramatic pause, “inside me,” on “St. Gregory” – and he means every word.
He proclaims, “This is neverlasting love” on “Esta Noche” and gently address someone, maybe himself, maybe his past self, on the drawling album closer “Number Nine” with the words, “You fucker, this here’s where we settle up,” sung by Lanegan. The contributions from Lanegan and former Prince protégé Appolonia never distract from Dulli’s personal self-loathing. It all sounds gnarled but also moving, and it’s that’s what made it a triumph.
The group finds the same feeling of agitation and longing with other people’s songs on 2004’s covers album She Loves You. Dulli’s inborn sense of urgency makes Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” sound like a swamp rock plea for love and “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” simmers with a uniquely Dulli-esque lust. Not everything on the album makes sense, notably a muted rock rendition of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and, for some still inexplicable, eyebrow-arching reason, “Strange Fruit.”
But the band corrected course two years later with Powder Burns, an album of originals bolstered by “Bonnie Brae,” one of Dulli’s best-ever songs with the way he sings words like “situation dire” while sounding calm, cool, and collected. (This is all the more impressive years later considering the band recorded some of the LP in New Orleans using generators after Hurricane Katrina … and it was the first album he had ever recorded sober.) Dulli even riffs on the Beatles’ “She Loves You” with a little extra growl in his voice on “Forty Dollars” and wallows in “that feeling you get when you’re dealing/You start to believe in there ain’t nobody who loves me” on “Candy Cane Crawl,” which features Ani DiFranco.
A “fast version” of “Candy Cane Crawl” on the Etcetera album has a funk-rock swing to it that makes it sound like he’s almost OK with nobody loving him. Two faster-paced songs in the middle of Etcetera, “Andiamo” and “Two Kinds,” could have been Whigs songs if that had been Dulli’s intention at the time. On “Andiamo,” one of the collection’s best outtakes, he sing-screams about calling on the law (“I think we solved it all”), and the music for “Two Kinds” alternates tonally between hope and confusion as pianos flicker around his voice as he sings, “You’ve got two kinds of trouble.” What those two kinds of trouble are, nobody will ever know since Dulli mutters the words and buries them in the mix, giving them a twilight-like opacity.
The band’s final album, 2011’s Dynamite Steps, recorded after Dulli’s solo tours and his collaboration with Lanegan – the Gutter Twins’ 2008 album, Saturnalia – balances the polished production of the group’s first album with the soul-baring Weltschmerz of Blackberry Belle. He’s able to sing a lubricious line like “Spread your legs, insert your alibi” on “On the Corner” without making it sound cringier than it needs to be. And on “Blackbird and the Fox,” he and DiFranco sing, “It’s never too late to cry, sleep with strangers/I’ll show you things that you’ve never seen, then I’ll take you home,” in a way that sounds almost sweet. That twilight zone of morality is what has always made Dulli’s music interesting and more than two decades into his career by that point, he could summon that energy effortlessly.
As always, he’s able to transfer that mood deftly to others’ songs too. Some of the most interesting tracks on Etcetera are covers, recorded long after She Loves You. Leonard Cohen’s “Paper Thin Hotel” appears naked in a way Cohen couldn’t manage on Death of a Ladies’ Man when Phil Spector intimidating him with guns and adding chimes and schmaltzy strings to it. So when Dulli sings, “You are the woman with her legs apart” (Dulli moans that last word “apaooort”) he sounds more like himself than Cohen, a lyricist he has emulated for much of his career. On “When Doves Cry,” originally recorded for a Purple Rain tribute, Dulli broods where Prince squeals, but he makes up for the extra tension with a surprisingly upbeat piano refrain in a major key where Prince went minor.
And on “Don’t Call,” a song originally recorded by Desire that could have sounded like Stevie Nicks’ “Stand Back” if they’d just let loose a little more, Dulli pulls it back even more, allowing his voice to ache in a way that sounds like he’s crumpling up under the weight of his own self-loathing. If the “Deepest Shade” demo was the Twilight Singers’ Big Bang, the cover of “Don’t Call” is the Big Crunch, and it paved the way for his return to the fire of the Whigs.
In the liner notes to the box set, all of which contains deceptively white graphic design, Lanegan wrote, “This box set is an Everest-sized testament to my dear friend’s genius and his continuing relentless pursuit of a muse that refuses to let him be, for which everyone who hears this music should be thankful.” This is the Twilight Singers’ work performed, so black out the windows, it’s party time.