Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Seeing Things - Jakob Dylan

Seeing Things

Jakob Dylan
Columbia Records.

SCQ Rating: 75%

Anyone who has closely followed Jakob Dylan’s output from his duties as lone-songwriter/vocalist/ guitarist of the Wallflowers saw this coming a mile away. From their breakthrough, Bringing Down the Horse, to their review-unworthy Rebel, Sweetheart, Jakob sounded most at home on the hushed folk songs that litter the Wallflowers discography. You name it: ‘Josephine’, ‘Three Marlenas’, ‘Mourning Train’, and ‘Up From Under’ were all tender reminders that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and although Dylan tried his hand at studio experiments (on Red Letter Days) and straight-on radio rock, the results often seemed nearly spiteful of what Jakob was meant to be: a folk singer. So after three years of silence, Dylan Jr. re-emerges with a humble set of sparse tunes, heartfelt and delicate, with Rick Rubin at the production helm.

Although opener ‘Evil is Alive and Well’ offers little lyrical insight beyond its title, it sets a somber tone of lonely acoustic guitar, the echoes of a second six-string, and Dylan’s voice so front and center, you can hear every grain in his aching. Moreover, ‘Evil is Alive…’ cleans the slate, closing the door on the last of the Wallflowers’ easy-listening, lite-rock and introducing a gritty collection that finds Dylan among his blue-collar heroes and singing songs that get people through the day. His lyrics praise the workingman’s pride as often as it derails the current political picture in America, but details are thankfully scarce in the latter subject, allowing Seeing Things to merely make mention to the troubled times we live in and skip the ill-advised scope of a ‘political album’. And while ‘Valley of the Low Sun’ and the bluesy ‘All Day and All Night’ offer refreshing comparison points to the Springsteen spirit, Seeing Things gets stronger in its second half, with the back-to-back sunshine of ‘War is Kind’ and ‘Something Good This Way Comes’.

What strikes me deepest about this album, and its distance from Dylan’s Wallflowers range, isn’t the material itself but its delivery. Many of these compositions are typical Jakob Dylan fare, accomplished but content in their general restlessness, but what makes Seeing Things Dylan’s finest collection of songs since 2000’s Breach lies in Dylan’s growth as an artist. While listening to ‘Will It Grow’ for the first time, I realized that Dylan couldn’t have sang it ten years ago, when the Wallflowers were at the top of alternative rock charts. He simply didn’t have the vocal chops or vision to see a song of that caliber’s through to completion. And perhaps he needed to feel the abandon of Rebel, Sweetheart’s creative dead-end (assisted handily by Brenden O'Brien in one of the lamest production jobs I’ve heard) to realize he should set out on his own with Rubin providing his less-is-more aesthetic. Whatever Dylan’s reasoning, Seeing Things benefits from those key decisions and feels like the prodigal son returning, more than it really deserves.

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