Jakob Dylan Talks About His First Solo Album
BY KRISTI YORK WOOTEN
Jakob Dylan says he knows what reviewers will write about his first solo recording, the Rick Rubin-produced “Seeing Things,” which goes on sale June 10.
*”The article’s going to say, ‘Dylan goes acoustic’,” he tells NEWSWEEK with a laugh. “I can give you 20 references of what the [writers] will say to be witty.”
Those familiar with Dylan’s tenure as leader of rock band the Wallflowers know that this son of Bob Dylan has spent the better part of the past two decades tunneling his own passageway as a songwriter, without the obvious help of his dad—and without too many favors from the press.
Perhaps critics haven’t given Dylan, 38, enough credit for his years as the straight-ahead, azure-eyed rocker who competently led his Wallflower charges on a Grammy-laden journey through multiple personnel changes, hits such as “6th Avenue Heartache” and “One Headlight,” and a stack of late-’90s magazine covers that focused more on his penchant for bowler hats than his knack for verse.
Or maybe Dylan knows all too well the endless scrutiny of being the son of one of rock’s most revered wordsmiths.
The fact that “Seeing Things” is a joint effort between Columbia Records and Starbucks Entertainment may provide fodder for the younger Dylan’s naysayers, if for no other reason than these new associations—the first, with his father’s record label, and the latter, with the Seattle-based coffeehouse that does a pretty good job of trying to be that label.
Being a platinum-selling rock star isn’t the only prize for Jakob Dylan. He’s always aimed to be a songwriter’s songwriter, and now with “Seeing Things,” in Rubin’s intimate—and yes, mostly acoustic—setting, Dylan’s considerable abilities are finally laid bare.
“He puts the ball back in the hand of the artist,” Dylan says of Rubin’s guidance. As for their working relationship and the songwriting process, Dylan says, “I never got the sense that what we were doing was crafting a record.”
Veteran producer Rubin, who last year became the co-head of Columbia Records, has a reputation for stripping musicians of the trappings that obscure the simple beauty of their songs (Johnny Cash’s “American Recordings” and Neil Diamond’s “12 Songs” are good cases in point), but the intricately woven words and melodies that make Jakob Dylan’s “Seeing Things” such a revelation aren’t merely the products of a guru’s vision.
Wallflowers fans will recognize the stark beauty of Dylan’s playing and singing on “War Is Kind.” Similar raw and personal moments are sprinkled throughout his band’s five studio albums (especially its 1996 breakthrough, “Bringing Down the Horse”). Yet in his new songs Dylan’s effortless vocal delivery and casual guitar picking feel like unexpected pleasures.
“Will It Grow” has an Appalachian air, with a two-step rhythm and an almost-whispered background harmony that suggest it’s been simmering beneath the surface for a hundred years. Likewise, the repetitive chorus of “Something Good This Way Comes” sounds like Woody Guthrie prewar Americana filtered through the laid-back lens of 1970’s “McCartney” (which was also that Beatle’s first solo effort).
A few of the album’s most memorable cuts (“On Up the Mountain,” “Everybody Pays as They Go”) strive to be the singalongs we all know and love but can’t credit—the kind with rhymes and tunes so perfectly unadorned they’ve been handed down through generations.
It’s no accident that the 10 tracks on “Seeing Things,” all penned by Dylan, have a timeless quality. “There’s a reason people do things continually,” he says of the universal themes and song structures that recall folk music’s great oral tradition. His songs share these traits, with an added pop sensibility. “I had no interest in reinventing the wheel,” he continues. “I would hope a good melody could stand the test of time.”
While Dylan says he avoided “strict narratives,” “Seeing Things” is filled with snapshots of valleys and mountains, working the fields and baking apple pies. Love, death, soldiers and war make appearances in nearly every song.
When asked if “Valley of the Low Sun,” in which he sings the lines “I know that soldiers are not paid to think/But something is making us sick/Onward and steady/Able and young/In the valley of the low, low sun” was written from the point of view of a U.S. soldier serving in the Middle East, Dylan demurs. Explaining his lyrics, he says, “takes all the magic out of it.”
One of his most poetic moments comes in the opening stanza of “This End of the Telescope,” in which he paints an indelible portrait of a young man “raised by wolves on the fat of the land.” The ballad’s pastoral imagery seems like a stretch for someone who’s spent much of his life in Los Angeles, but taken at face value, the words and melodies equal one undeniably powerful sum.
As for Rubin, 44, his greatest contribution to “Seeing Things” might be the support he lent Dylan during the process of writing and recording. “I played him some songs early on, and he encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing,” Dylan says of Rubin’s dual role as producer and label chief. At other record companies, Dylan says, “there could have been barriers.” But with Rubin, “I wasn’t concerned about sneaking something past him.”