By Alan Sculley
When Jakob Dylan and his band, the Wallflowers, were making their second CD, Bringing Down The Horse (Interscope), they weren't thinking about hitting it big. Instead, the goal was much more modest. "When you're a band that's not successful, you're always looking for the next break, you're looking for the next step," Dylan said. "That doesn't mean massive success as much as it means you're fighting to keep your job, you're fighting to pay your bills or you're fighting to do a little better than you did the last time so you can stay on a record label. You're fighting to keep your band together because people leave when you're not successful. They've got to move on. And it was a struggle."
Dylan's not being dramatic in putting Bringing Down The Horse into this perspective. The fact is, the Wallflowers' self-titled 1992 CD had been a fairly spectacular flop, topping out at about 40,000 in sales. Seeking a new start, Dylan and the Wallflowers asked out of their contract with Virgin Records--a request the label was more than happy to honor. But offers from other labels didn't pour in, and by the time the Wallflowers eventually got a new deal with Interscope Records, three of the band members had left the group, leaving guitarist/singer Dylan and keyboardist Rami Jaffee as the only original Wallflowers. Even Dylan admits Interscope's expectations for Bringing Down The Horse were not that high.
"When I made that record, I was concerned with getting 12 more songs on a CD and doing a little better, or getting further, than I had the time before," Dylan said, further explaining his mindset heading into that album. "My idea was not to conquer the world. It never has been. I want to achieve more each time I do these things than I had last time. And that doesn't necessarily mean sales or exposure. I was interested in making a much more complete record last time around than I had on my first record."
Dylan and the Wallflowers not only took a step forward artistically, they took a huge leap in popularity. By the time Bringing Down The Horse finished its run, it had spawned four hit singles--"6th Avenue Heartache," "One Headlight," The Difference" and "Three Marlenas"--and worldwide sales had hit six million. So obviously, Dylan, Jaffee and the other members of the Wallflowers--bassist Greg Richling, guitarist Michael Ward and drummer Mario Calire--approached their new CD, Breach, in a completely different situation than the one that preceded Bringing Down The Horse. But Dylan's comments suggest that the focus he brought to the new CD had not shifted much from where it had been four years earlier when the Wallflowers were virtually unknown and Dylan's chief claim to fame was that he was the son of music legend Bob Dylan.
"My main concern was just in the songs," Dylan said, noting how the Wallflowers sought to keep any thoughts of following up to the success of Bringing Down The Horse out of the equation while writing and recording "Breach." "I wanted to explore different styles of songwriting that I hadn't really done before. And that involved actually being simpler than I had been before and I wrote more direct."
Indeed, the lyrics to certain songs on Breach may provide the greatest contrast to "Bringing Down The Horse." On a musical level, the new CD retains much of the rootsy pop feel of the previous CD. And like Bringing Down The Horse, Breach has its share of songs that reveal Dylan's notable talent for memorable melodies.
For instance, the opening song, "Letters From The Wasteland" catches its spark from a short moody guitar lick that infiltrates the verses. Rockers like "Sleepwalker" and "Some Flowers Bloom Dead" have hooks as insistent as their tempos, while "Murder 101" echoes the punky pop of the Replacements, as Dylan shares vocals with Elvis Costello.
When the Wallflowers settle into a mid-tempo groove, the results are just as satisfying, whether the group is flavoring a tune like "Witness" with some winsome horns or spicing the Tom Petty-ish "Hand Me Down" with some tasty slide guitar. Lyrically, though, there are notable contrasts. While Dylan said he has always invested plenty of feeling into his songs ("I don't think the (new) record's any more personal than I've been before, he said), the shift toward more of a direct, first-person perspective heightens the emotional tension of several songs.
This is bound to raise the curiosity of fans who have always searched Wallflowers' lyrics for clues about Dylan's relationship with his famous father. On past records, any such references were tenuous at best. But Breach has a pair of songs--"Hand Me Down" and "I've Been Delivered"--that could easily be interpreted as chronicles of the challenges that can come with living in the shadow of someone whose impact has been as profound as Bob Dylan's.
"Hand Me Down" is a stinging look at trying to live up to the expectations of others. With lines like "You feel good and you look like you should/but you won't ever make us proud," or "Living proof that evolution is through/We're stuck with you," the song invites speculation about Dylan's relationship with his father. Of course, the song could just as easily be about the demands of any parent or friend, or the failures of any public figure to live up to expectations of others. And it should be noted that in various interviews, Dylan has praised the parenting skills of his father and his mother, Sara. The couple divorced in 1977, but both spent time raising Jakob, now 30, and his four older siblings.
"I've Been Delivered," could be seen as Dylan tracing the struggle to be seen as his own man and judged with no regard to his father's accomplishments and legacy.
For his part, Dylan doesn't want to reveal the intent or context behind either song. He spoke of "Hand Me Down" in particular.
"To be honest, I haven't confirmed or denied that that song is about me or anybody that I know," he said. "But I think that writers have had an easy time assuming that it is because they're looking for it. If someone else had written the song, they may not make the connection that it was personal at all. But I put all the songs out there for interpretation. I got very exhausted on my other records trying to stay clear of anything that could be interpreted as personal.
"But I suppose with me, if you're looking for those connections in songs, then it's easy to find them right there," Dylan said. "It's not interesting to me to correct people. I think songs are for interpreting. That's kind of what's entertaining about songs and that's what's interesting to me when I listen to other peoples' songs. I really like the process of trying to figure out what the point is. And I'm not necessarily trying to figure out what his point is or her point is as much as what I can get out of peoples' songs.
"That's what's important to me, that the songs relate to people in any fashion. It doesn't have to be my point."
The Wallfowers perform Monday., Nov. 13, at the Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. The show is sold out.
From the November 9-15, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.