As his band’s name suggests, Greg Dulli’s brand of rock and roll is about what goes down while the rest of us are asleep. Twilight Singers records are cinematic urban environs characterized by large, dark sunglasses, flashing neon signs, innumerable cigarette drags, and more debauchery and vice in a single night than most people experience in a lifetime. But beneath the rock star bravado and a swagger that seems to bask in the exploits of the seamy side of life, Dulli’s music glowingly bares a soul that is vulnerable, tormented, and, most compellingly, almost always seeking some sort of redemption. Dynamite Steps, The Twilight Singers’ fifth full-length and first new record in nearly five years, returns listeners to Dulli’s usual late-night stomping grounds for another round of anguish and celebration.
“Whenever you’re here you’re alive/The devil says you can do what you like,” sings Dulli on the first lines of the record’s opener, “Last Night in Town”, a fitting welcome to his nocturnal playground. But, more importantly, this track clues listeners in on the musical movement of the album. It would be inaccurate to say that these songs “build.” They don’t build. They explode. Dynamite Steps, appropriately enough, is an album of powder kegs and bright flashes—moments that boldly spark, then quickly burn out. “Last Night in Town” begins as a subdued piano- and synth-driven piece that halfway through—with very little warning—launches into a soaring track with muscle and echoed vocals, unimaginable just a few moments earlier. Not every song on the record is this unpredictable, but most tracks dial up either a sudden burst or a series of smaller explosions to drive them.
“Waves” wallows in groans and rumbling for nearly a minute before erupting into the album’s most aggressive track, a static rocker that climaxes with Dulli’s patented sing-shout wailing, “Say what you wanna say.” “Get Lucky” marches forward on the agile legs of sweeping violin, cello, viola, and piano in what feels like a stand against past demons. (“Once you know the way down/The path belongs to you.”) But is familiarity with his tormentor a source of strength and a path to liberation for Dulli, or is it more an understanding that he’ll inevitably succumb again?
Lead single “On the Corner” encapsulates everything there is to love about The Twilight Singers: brash and glowing guitars; Dulli’s impassioned imploring on the choruses; playful and jubilant backing vocals that perfectly meld with the rising action; and that overt licentiousness (“Spread your legs/Insert your alibi”) that makes the music, well, sexy as hell regardless of the subject matter. “Gunshots”, with vocal backing from Joseph Arthur, continues in a similar vein as “On the Corner”, culminating in a breathtaking wall of sound and featuring some of Dulli’s definitive lyrics. (“The sky descends to meet you/Of this, I can recall/As I prepare to leave you/A kiss, a curse, a draw.”)
In addition to regular Twilight Singers Scott Ford (bass/vocals) and Dave Rosser (guitar/vocals) and a slew of other players who tour with Dulli and frequent the liner notes of his records, there are also a few notable, familiar guests who lend their voices to Dynamite Steps; unfortunately, these vocal collaborations yield some of the record’s weaker efforts. Fellow Gutter Twin Mark Lanegan appears on the slow-burning “Be Invited”, and while his low growl sounds as ominous as ever alongside Dulli, this terse track—one of the few that never really breaks out of its mold—sticks to a crawl and merely hints at the mayhem these two usually concoct together. Singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco matches Dulli lyric for lyric on “Blackbird and the Fox”, which does lend itself to the song’s final, vibrant burst, but it’s too little, too late to make the track special.
Dynamite Steps concludes with the nearly seven-minute title track, a spare piano number that eventually explodes like a fading night’s last defiant breath before sunrise. This song acts like a moment of clarity in those last exhausted, hazy moments before morning breaks—an attempt to make sense of and emotionally document what has occurred (“You’re never gonna feel like you felt last night/…Wake up in a field with a second sight/You’ll love me”) before the fog of sleep finally sets in and plays its games and tricks on the heart and the memory.
Nothing on Dynamite Steps is as instantly accessible as “Teenage Wristband” (Blackberry Belle) or “Bonnie Brae” (Powder Burns), but any night on the town with Greg Dulli is hard to resist. City lights flicker. Cigarettes burn. Lovers meet. Demons return. Torment and celebration in every step.
Beats a quiet night at home.