Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Afghan Whigs, "What Jail Is Like" (1993)


Perhaps because of the word "jail" I tend to associate this in my mind with the devastating 1988 throwaway from Was (Not Was), "Dad I'm in Jail" (which, in its way, also sounds like what [I imagine] jail is like). "Jailhouse Rock" (Elvis Presley) and "Jailbreak" (Thin Lizzy) or even "In the Jailhouse Now" (Woody Guthrie) are not exactly of the same stripe, so perhaps it's more about mood, some certain personal appreciation of the subject matter. For all their unexamined privilege—on sight, Greg Dulli and Afghan Whigs never seemed particularly suited to grunge, let alone jail—it somehow bears a terrible gravity, as indeed does the entire album it comes from, Gentlemen. The concerns of the album are focused more on failed romances than incarceration but that doesn't make the contemplation of jail any less compelling, when we are forced to consider at least briefly why the singer might have been in jail. But that's not forthcoming, of course. For one thing, it's all conditional, he's not actually there. "This must be what jail is really like," he notes of the present relationship, as the song slips into the chorus and elevates a level or three at once. Even the condition is conditioned with the word "really," perhaps there to make the line scan but introducing more abstraction. The lyrics never really leap out, but burrowing down into them one finds a dark heart indeed: "I'll warn you, if cornered / I'll scratch my way out of the pain ... Think I'm scared of girls / Well maybe / But I'm not afraid of you." Dulli has always struck me as a terrific contrast, cutting a bit of a Whit Stillman character from the stage, charming and chatty and convivial. But then he delivers songs like this.

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