“Once I realized that this album was basically going to just be guitar and voice,” says Jakob Dylan, “I had to work a bit differently, because there's nothing but the song to grab your attention.”
On Seeing Things, Dylan's first-ever solo album, the songs most certainly do make a listener sit up and take notice. They are spare, unblinking visions, stripped to the bone, full of dread and darkness one minute and spirited optimism the next. After five albums as the leader of the platinum-selling, Grammy-winning band the Wallflowers, with this project Dylan reveals a striking and powerful new approach to his work.
“In a band, you usually use the studio as another instrument, whether as an ally or an opponent,” he says. “But this time, it was as if there was no studio beyond documenting the songs. I wanted the studio to be invisible, and to have that lack of sound become the sound of the record.”
Inspiration arrived when he went on tour opening for T-Bone Burnett, an old friend who also produced the Wallflowers' 1996 breakthrough album Bringing Down the Horse. Dylan had only his Wallflowers material from which to draw, but playing those compositions alone on an acoustic guitar led to a revelation.
"That's the way I wrote all of those songs, and the way they sounded before exploring them with the Wallflowers,” he says. “I knew that I wanted to write more songs I could play in that sort of setting.”
Still, he had to find a voice that matched his intention. “You want each record to have a language that's unique to itself,” he says. The new chapter began with “Valley of the Low Sun,” a haunting, gently ominous dreamscape. “There's always something that tells you that you've started a record,” he says, “and when that song hit me, I realized I had begun.”
The rest of the album was written over the next few months, at which point Dylan played them for Rick Rubin, who had recently become the head of Dylan's new label, Columbia Records. Rubin, who has produced legends from Johnny Cash to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, from the Dixie Chicks to Jay-Z, became Dylan's guide to unlocking the songs on Seeing Things.
“Rick got to Columbia right on time for me, because I was at a bit of a standstill,” says Dylan. “He understood what I was trying to get to, and set me in an atmosphere which gave me the freedom to do it.” Rubin's support extended down to the location of the sessions—most of the album was recorded in the producer's Hollywood home,
The lyrics of these ten songs return again and again to visions of apocalypse and war. Asked if this imagery is a result of the times we live in, Dylan allows that “I wouldn't know how to write something today and not have that sense in there.” But, he emphasizes, he isn't interested in writing literal commentary on current events. “I never find it that distinctive to reference or name-check specific moments, or to write actual narratives,” he says. “I'm still too caught up in the beauty of words. It doesn't matter what you're talking about—if you truly tell it the way you see it, you're never going to have regrets.”
More than anything, songs like “All Day and All Night” hearken back to the timeless language of American roots music. Though Dylan has often spoken of more modern bands like the Clash as his greatest inspiration, he asserts that with these songs, he was aspiring to the majesty and the mystery of the country blues masters.
“That's the stuff I listen to, that's the vocabulary I work with and always go back to,” he says. “If you're a songwriter, that should be your territory-that's the high water mark for all of us. I wanted to write songs that sounded like they've been here forever, that feel like they were carved right from the mountain, not just made in some studio somewhere.”
But there's nothing one-dimensional about Seeing Things; it is also marked by the joy found in such songs as “Something Good This Way Comes.” “I was aware that it was shaping up as a very dramatic record, but I believe those optimistic things, too,” says Dylan. “People might sometimes listen to my songs and think I'm depressed, but I'm really not. There's always been hope and humor in what I write.”
As for the Wallflowers, Dylan maintains that the band is alive and well, and that Seeing Things represents a hiatus, not an ending. “The Wallflowers are designed for a certain sound, and I needed something different,” he says. “I have a great group, and I want to make more records with them. But I've never had a chance to hear my voice sound this way coming out of the speakers.”
Live On Stage:
Jakob will be hitting Manchester will a newly released solo album, so I wouldn't expect a Wallflowers greatest hits set out him. Here's Jakob doing a solo acoustic version of One Headlight...
We'll kick it old school with some Wallflowers, let's go with their cover of Heroes...
Few more to check out...
6th Avenue Heartache
For more on Jakob Dylan head on over to his official website.
Saturday, May 31, 2008