Could it be that after decades of self-flagellation Greg Dulli is ready to cut loose? On Random Desire, the latest solo outing by the Afghan Whigs and Twilight Singers’ resident tortured poet, he sounds like he’s at least willing to try.
The album opens with a spry, buoyant bass line and snappy rhythm on “Pantomima” — a mood that Dulli immediately crushes with his inherent pessimism, singing, “Desolation, come and get it.” A few seconds later, he cracks that his broken heart as been “fixed in post” like a Hollywood producer making an actor who flubbed his line look good. In this case, “fixed in post” means an uplifting guitar line, a little tambourine and vocal hooks like “don’t you forget it” hiding his otherwise tempestuous world outlook. It’s a pace he manages to keep up for 37 minutes on Random Desire.
As a whole, the album is a surprising turn for an artist who built much of his legend on self-loathing, brooding, and yearning (both existentially and carnally). This is the guy, after all, who nearly 30 years ago sang “I got a dick for a brain/And my brain is gonna sell my ass to you” on the Whigs’ “Be Sweet.” Since then, he’s drifted in and out of his Lothario guise, twisting his dark-night-of-the-soul confessions through an angsty kaleidoscope lens, coming off a bit more philosophical with the Twilight Singers. So even though we know Dulli was the man behind the curtain on all those albums, it’s curious how different Random Desire is from the rest of his oeuvre, if not for the fact that it began as a truly solo effort with him handling all the instruments (before inviting a few of his friends to record with him).
He has said that he wrote the record’s music before the lyrics, which suggests that some of the songs’ upbeat tones are aspirational, a bit like positive visualization. On “Sempre,” he struggles with his own self-deprecation singing “I’ve got no one” two times before giving in to the marathon-paced drums and major-key piano to sing “I’ve got no one to hold me back.” He shifts his perspective again on “The Tide,” another number with a driving rhythm, when he goes from singing “I’m a wreck” at the beginning to quoting the Beatles’ “She’s So Heavy” at the end; you can practically hear how a little comfort food perks his spirits. And on “Scorpio,” he practically starts rapping, “Feel your body let go, don’t waste no time” to the “Imagine”-style piano line before crooning “I know you care.”
Whether it’s the mood of the music or just his frame of mind, Dulli’s voice is in fine form on the album. Where he used to sometimes sound like a man placed on a torture rack with a roller pushing the air out of his lungs (which is also likely how he was feeling, judging from his lyrics), here the effect is a bit more like the way Elvis Costello’s voice floats around the chords. His voice flits about on “Black Moon,” a skittery song with a string arrangement that might be saccharine pop were Dulli not singing about a black moon. And between an 808 drum beat and melting horns, he bellows, “Won’t you let your savior share your shame?” on “Lockless.” He’s a man in battle with his own nature.
It all comes together in the best way on “A Ghost,” a dusky song with Nick Cavey chimes, cinematic strings, and weeping steel guitar, on which Dulli’s voice seems to become one with the music. He sings about experiencing heaven until “up jumped the devil,” which, in the context of the rest of the album, suggests that the random desire he truly wants is happiness.