After five albums and 18 years fronting The Wallflowers, Jakob Dylan has built the confidence to “go acoustic” on his first solo album, the Rick Rubin-produced Seeing Things. Historically speaking, this is a very big deal, because the 38-year-old Dylan has fashioned a batch of topical songs out of the bedrock of traditional music, just as Dad did during his initial burst of brilliance.
“I wouldn’t know how to write songs today that don’t address these things—they’re beyond relevant,” Dylan says of timely but poetically posed observations like “Evil Is Alive and Well,” “Valley of the Low Sun” and “War Is Kind.” “But too many topical songs are just bumper stickers. The expressions and language I use come to me naturally, so it’s not so much avoiding topical terms as it is that they don’t feel poetic or interesting. Sometimes you’ve gotta go backwards to go forward.”
Even more stripped down than Rubin’s celebrated American Recordings series with Johnny Cash, Seeing Things zeroes in on Dylan’s naturally mournful voice and acoustic fingerpicking. These riveting, close-mic’d performances are the late-ripening fruit of a lifetime spent poring over the sacred texts—Robert Johnson, English folk guitarist John Renbourn, Muddy Waters’ Folk Singer, Neil Young and, of course, his old man.
The album’s most revealing song, elliptically autobiographical closer “This End of the Telescope,” is laden with imagery that will be very familiar to Bob’s legions. In the first verse, for example, Jakob writes that he was “Raised by wolves on the fat of the land / Clear of romance, beauty and damned.”
When it’s pointed out that the lyric seems to deal, metaphorically but unflinchingly, with the singular place in the universe he inhabits, Dylan responds, “You mean in the familial sense? There’s a reason why imagery that sounds like it’s been dragged right up from the middle of the earth keeps getting re-spun every year—’cause it’s the best. Yeah, I work within those parameters, and I see those images, and I hear music that way.”
Having made an album of unadorned original folk songs, Dylan realizes there’s no escaping his father’s looming shadow. “That stuff is the high water mark for anybody doing what I do,” he says, “so there is no way to avoid it, not just for me but for any songwriter. If your goal is to not be referenced to his career, there are not a lot of options. Certainly I have a different set of expectations with it, but I just can’t wonder anymore if people are gonna think about that. I have no hang-ups about it.”