The essential Jakob Dylan
Jakob DYLAN has been waiting for this moment.
He has four sons, and the older two are inching toward their teenage years. Over a lunch of black coffee in the Hollywood foothills the other day, he said he’s made plans to become a stage dad, the best and most fervent that there ever was. He’s going to enroll those boys in every arm of the performing arts he can think of, he said -- dancing and singing, instrumentation and songwriting.
“And then,” he said, “people can dissect them, and talk about how much pressure they must be under because they are my sons.”
Dylan narrowed his crystalline eyes and offered an easy smile. It was a smile of poise and peace, of recognition -- at long last -- that to much of the world, it will always be about the father, even when it should be about the son.
On Tuesday, Dylan, 38, will release “Seeing Things,” his first solo album. The longtime ringleader of the Wallflowers, he has enjoyed considerable success in the last decade or so. But the new album is probably his best work, certainly his most graceful, with a range of imagery -- of grown-up love and grasshoppers on a country road, but also of darkness and war -- achieved only by gifted storytellers.
Unlike the ensemble rock of the Wallflowers, the new album is also, however, largely about one man, one voice and one acoustic guitar. That will seem, Dylan knows, awfully familiar to some.
So Dylan was kind enough to suggest, without prompting, his own headlines for this article. They included “Dylan Unplugs,” “Dylan Doesn’t Go Electric” and, his personal favorite, “Another Side of Jakob Dylan,” a modern take on his father’s 1964 album, “Another Side of Bob Dylan.” “Clever, right?” he said.
He used to avoid the issue. Now, he figures he might as well get it out of the way. Maybe then it will become evident that his career is not as complicated a matter as everyone has presumed. Maybe then it will become evident that with these 10 songs, he has merely endeavored to join the ranks of the most delicate and lyrical songwriters, a high enough calling without trying to be, you know, the conscience of a generation.
“Look, if I wanted to avoid all of it, my next record would have been played on a kazoo and it would be about water polo,” he said with a shrug. “The truth is, it’s just not as big an elephant in my room as it is for some other people.”
AS LIBERATING as that is for him, it will be disappointing to some. For 45 years, Bob Dylan’s fans have walked a fine line between devoted and obsessive. One piece of that fascination -- to both artists’ chagrin -- has long focused on Jakob Dylan, the only Dylan child who elected to become a recording artist.
On one hand, he acknowledges that no one forced him into a recording studio at knifepoint. On the other hand, the result has been, at times, preposterous; he was somehow elected chairman of the Child Musicians Who Could Never Live Up to Their Fathers Assn.
There were many board members: the Lennon boys, Ziggy Marley, Lisa Marie Presley. Some put their generational pathos to song (Martha Wainwright wrote a song to her father, Loudon, the title of which contains the words, “Bloody,” “Mother” and two unprintables).
Jakob Dylan, all along, politely told everyone who asked that, yes, he was well aware of his father’s role in the creation of modern music and, no, he had no aspiration to match that. Some still couldn’t get past the idea that the seminal album “Blood on the Tracks” was effectively a conversation between Jakob Dylan’s parents, that “Forever Young” was written, reportedly, for him.
“I think it’s plagued him his whole life,” said Rick Rubin, the producer of the new album and a head of Columbia Records, Dylan’s label. Many assumed that it was simply too much of a shadow for any artist to work in; as one man put it on an Internet site where fans were trying to analyze the dynamic: “After all, Moses failed, too.”
So, Jakob Dylan retreated to a degree. In interviews, he began using “he” and “him,” not “my dad” or “my father”; even now, the official biography that accompanies his new album does not mention that he is Bob Dylan’s son, which, of course, says more than if it did, demonstrating the bind that he is in. He has acknowledged scouring his lyrics for anything that might be interpreted as being either derivative of his father’s music or revealing about their relationship.
When he supposedly addressed his place in the music world in 2000 in his song “Hand Me Down,” it was treated like the moment when Forrest Gump finally speaks after jogging in silence for three years with a cult trailing behind him: “Quiet! He’s going to say something!”
“Hand Me Down” did include some remarkably revealing and acidic lyrics, including: “Living proof evolution’s through / We’re stuck with you / This revolution’s doomed.” Just one problem: No one asked Jakob Dylan if the song was about him.
“As if I was going to lay on the couch for the world,” he said. The song, he said, was about insurmountable odds, just not those facing him. “People are looking for a clue -- for the obvious reasons. They can take the most inane line that means nothing and suddenly it reflects on how it feels to be me.”
Finding something new
THE WALLFLOWERS built a loyal following in Los Angeles in the late 1980s, much of it on the strength of their regular shows at the Kibitz Room, the music venue attached to Canter’s, the landmark Fairfax Avenue deli. The band’s first album, released in 1992, did not sell. But its second, “Bringing Down the Horse,” with songs including “One Headlight” and “6th Avenue Heartache,” helped fuel a resurgence in post-grunge modern rock. It won two Grammys and has sold more than 5 million copies.
Dylan hasn’t been able to replicate that success. Three more albums -- “Breach” in 2000, “Red Letter Days” in 2002 and “Rebel, Sweetheart” in 2005 -- engendered a more uneven response.
The band, meanwhile, went through 10 members and performed, at various times, as a trio, a quartet and a quintet -- largely, Dylan concedes, because he “may not be that easy to work with.”
The band has never broken up; it is scheduled to play a slew of shows this year (including July 18 at Pacific Amphitheatre). But Dylan was searching for something new, and began to find it not long after the release of “Rebel, Sweetheart,” when he agreed to open a series of concerts for T-Bone Burnett, the songwriter, an old friend and the producer of many hit records, including “Bringing Down the Horse.”
Dylan played short sets to open for Burnett; he had nothing but the Wallflowers catalog to play but tapped into a bit of magic by reinterpreting the songs as solo acoustic numbers. He began to write a collection of often beautiful songs -- some about the horrors of war, many laced with elements of traditional folk music -- that would eventually become “Seeing Things.”
“These were the sounds I wanted to hear coming out of my speakers,” Dylan said.
That simple sound would be captured through a convoluted series of events.
Dylan signed a contract with Columbia Records during a tumultuous time at the storied label. The result was that the newly appointed Rubin -- one of the most successful producers in the last quarter century -- elected to record the album at his home in the Hollywood Hills. Their styles meshed.
Rubin has worked with an eclectic array of artists, including Run DMC, Dixie Chicks, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. One of his signatures, however, is boiling an artist down to his or her essence, as he did with Johnny Cash’s recordings in the last years of the legend’s life.
“He has a unique set of ears that is not easily foiled,” Dylan said. “He’s just right more often than most.”
Dylan, meanwhile, was looking to record a naked album that was an antidote of sorts to overproduced, overdubbed albums that are released with such frequency today. Those albums, Dylan said, “make my ears feel pretty jammed up.”
Not this one, Rubin said.
“I don’t listen to music by genre. I just like good music,” Rubin said. “And these are good songs presented in an honest, natural way. And maybe for the first time, you really get to feel Jakob. It’s a pure expression of him.”
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