Graham Reid | | 1 min read
The previous solo album by Dylan, Seeing Things, confirmed that he had stepped well out of the shadow his famous father (and the Wallflowers band) and had found his own voice -- or at least Jackson Browne's by way of alt.country. And although he sounded wise beyond his years he was on the cusp of 40 so . . .
This time out with producer T Bone Burnett providing the rather too warm and comfortable setting, some of the same problems appear: there is a uniformity of tone and delivery which rather undermines the often serious purpose of these lyrically crafted songs.
Jakob Dylan increasingly occupies an almost MOR singer-songwriter world in terms of melody (the early Eagles and the LA singers of the early Seventies is a useful reference point) but to this he and Burnett add weeping pedal steel (the great Greg Leisz), the occasional horn part, mandolin from David Mansfield and backing vocals (Neko Case and Kelly Hogan) which shift it discreetly towards Americana.
And this is very much music of an imagined, sometimes ancient heartland where uncertainty is endemic, there are borderlines and rivers of tears, dams ready to burst and wreak havoc, abandoned farms and the walking wounded. These aren't bleak songs necessarily but come from that great and long tradition of such rural-based Americana and are here brought into the contemporary world by a songwriter who is intuitively attuned to such things.
Even at its most slight, this has resonance: The folksy They've Trapped Us Boys is a litany of metaphors and images ("fill the dirt back on the grave, ain't nothing good here being raised") might be on one level about being trapped in a mine but is also a state-of-the-nation meditation.
But the settings strip many of these lyrics of their sense of unease and the over-arching tone of weary langour in Dylan's delivery compounds that sense on otherwise excellent songs such as the understated Down on Our Own Shield (with guitar by Marc Ribot).
When the woozy, Waitsean horns come in on Lend a Hand the shift of mood is welcome, but you'd wish for more gravitas in Dylan's delivery -- especially in an end-of-times song with great lines like "payback is coming around, the hourglass is sitting there on the table, filled on both sides now" and "take me to Hades or take me to Memphis, just don't take me for one of you".
So a fine but flawed album, undermined largely by what we might call its professional approach when more dirt under the nails would have suited these often quite gripping lyrics.