Jakob Dylan‘s first solo album, 2008’s Seeing Things, portrayed a grinning troubadour first emerging on his own to a world full of promise, if not tinged at the edges by hints of darkness. He sang wistfully of apple pies cooling on windowsills, and of the reward of better things at the end of a long day’s toiling.
But on his stark and often brooding follow-up, Women + Country, Dylan walks an entirely different line through the shadows of an American gothic landscape peopled by downtrodden sharecroppers and the dismally unemployed.� And in trudging through the dense and tangling undergrowth of an often paved-over aspect of the American experience, Dylan reveals a startling new direction in his progression as an artist and a storyteller.
Dylan, at this point in his career, need not be compared to his father. The Wallflowers represented an archetype of mid-’90s alternative rock, dominating rock radio in 1996 with multiple simultaneous singles from Bringing Down The Horse. More than a decade later, he reestablished himself as a solo artist and scrawled a clear line in the dirt. While there are plenty of similarities between father and son – both seem steeped in Americana, as if tumbleweeds rolled through every landscape they ever crossed – Jakob is the more tuneful of the two, conveying simple melodies through his tell-tale velvety rasp.
Women + Country seems poised for greatness from the outset. T-Bone Burnett produced it, imbuing it with the same big bass drums and dusty warmth as his recent work with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, BB King and the now genre-defining O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack (all of which won Grammys). And to round it all out, Neko Case sings backup on several tracks alongside singer-songwriter Kelly Hogan, giving the album a quiet lushness in the midst of all its grit.
It begins with the same Dylan we heard on Seeing Things. Amid a dustbowl wash of acoustic and steel guitar, he seems to lay out a tale of cockeyed optimism. On Nothing But The Whole Wide World, he sings, “Nothing to lose but rivets and chains, got nothing but the whole wide world to gain.”
But by the third track, Lend A Hand, the album veers sharply into Depression-era territory, unveiling themes that were previously only hinted at. The track seems to slide down the walls, sweaty and choking in its own New Orleans swagger. Muted horns and a pounding bass drum lead a funeral procession through lyrical streets populated by a “toothless woman” and a “one-armed man”. Dylan’s advice: “Be an optimist; see the glass half-full. You don’t gotta like what you got in it.”
We Don’t Live Here Anymore is the most arresting song here, telling a tale of foreclosure and displacement. Dylan is at his best spinning the sorrow-song of a transient nation, patrolling dirt roads in spurred boots. “Now, that ain’t country in their voice,” he sings. “They ain’t no local boys. The landlord’s daughter is at the door, saying we don’t live here anymore.” The album closer Standing Eight Count is the closest Dylan’s come to revisiting his Wallflowers days. “You hurt the ones you love, and we couldn’t do much worse,” Dylan sings over a driving beat and lazy lower-register horns.
In his seemingly simple stories, Dylan may well be the folk equivalent of a modern-day Mark Twain, mixed with Faulkner’s sense of gothic bleakness. Women + Country is something of a concept album, providing a necessary and unflinching look at a people who are often too proud to admit they’re dying slowly of the lonesome blues.