THE AFGHAN WHIGS: CONGREGATION (1992)
1) Her Against Me; 2) I'm Her Slave; 3) Turn On The Water; 4) Conjure Me; 5) Kiss The Floor; 6) Congregation; 7) This Is My Confession; 8) Dedicate It; 9) The Temple; 10) Let Me Lie To You; 11) Tonight; 12) Miles Iz Dead.
This is the record that supposedly initiates the Whigs' «classic» period, critically acclaimed for the just-right ratio of grunge to R'n'B to troubled singer-songwriter content. True, it is a clear step up from the previous album, but the way I see it, the Whigs' creative growth was almost painfully slow — and furthermore, do not even begin to try and compare Congregation, in terms of intensity and poisonous flames, to same era records from Nirvana or Alice In Chains, because any such comparison will immediately strip the album of any good reasons it might have to exist.
Having now fully asserted his role as the band's major creative force, Greg Dulli still has not learned to write interesting songs; there are many different riff parts on here, but not a single one I'd like to take to heaven or hell with me. Except 'The Temple', of course, but that's because 'The Temple' is a cover of a track from Jesus Christ Superstar — the album's most surprising move, open to various interpretations. It is a rather lame cover, but the question, of course, is not how good or bad it is, but whatever made Dulli put it there...
...which, logically, leads to the next question: what the hell is Congregation actually about? The album is clearly conceptual. It has a naked black woman hugging a naked white baby on the cover (which some interpret as a reflection of Dulli's subconscious frustration at not being born black, and others as a brief synopsis of the racial history of humanity). It has a pretentious fourty second male-female introduction that begins with such lines as "Eat my imagination, taste my imaginary friend". Throughout, it features stream-of-consciousness lyrics that keep switching from male-female to individual-society relationships, with «male» and «individual» predictably featured in a more positive light than «female» and «society».
But none of the points are ever made explicit. Instead, there is simply a general feeling of something wrong going on in an environment where everything should be supposed to be going right. Does that have something to do with the fact that a black woman is holding a white child? What, exactly, is the problem here? Why is Greg Dulli singing 'The Temple' to us? Is it just because he loved that melody so much that he'd waited ten or more years of his life to put it on his own record, or is there a deeper conceptual dig to it?
Considering that the album's best song, a depressed jangly dirge to Miles Davis, was thrown on as an afterthought, after one of Dulli's friends, setting up a party, left the message "Miles is dead. Don't forget the alcohol" on Greg's answering machine — there are no particular deep conceptual digs on most of the songs. In that sense, Congregation works much better if you just take it as one mid-sized blob of whirlwinding guitars and grumbly scream-singing that seems like the ideal average of a kick-ass attack and a tired, languid fit of depression.
It all comes perfectly together on the album's second best song, 'Tonight', which sees Dulli perform his sociophysiological functions ("follow me down to the bushes, dear, no one will know, we'll disappear") with such utter disgust ("our private little trip to hell") as if he were thinking of himself as one of Plato's immaculate ideas, for some stupid reason, trapped inside an atrocious human body. If there is one little moment for which I am bound to remember Congregation, it is the fact I have never heard no one, ever before, say the clichéd phrase "Can I walk you home tonight?" with such visible contempt for both its object and subject.
Other than those last two songs, though, and very occasional blips of interest on the rest of the record (well, want it or not, you don't get to hear Andrew Lloyd Webber covers on alt-rock artists' albums every other day), Congregation still does not manage to justify the Whigs' descent on our planet. You do have to admit, though, that the combination of black and white flesh looks quite classy against a red background. Too bad the music is nowhere near that colorful.
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