Jakob Dylan has always been part cowboy-troubadour, part rabbi
"Maybe your heart's not in it no more," Jakob Dylan sings at the beginning of the new Wallflowers album. It's a provocative thought for the rock 'n' roll warhorse as he puts out his ninth studio album of original songs.
Dylan said the song is "a conversation you might have with your own muse, and just wondering if things still mean the same thing and if you're still driven to do what you've been doing."
So what's the answer?
"I don't know," he said, sitting in a coffee shop in Santa Monica, Calif. "It's just a question. It's just maybe. Maybe your heart's not in it no more. Because your heart has to be in everything you're doing, or everything's pointless."
Dylan, 51, insisted his heart was in "Exit Wounds," the album that came out earlier this month. It's a return to the familiar Wallflowers sound — dive-bar guitar, piano, electric organ — though not a familiar lineup. Gone are longtime members Rami Jaffee and Greg Richling. But the band's frontman and lead singer, who has written nearly every song, argued that "the Wallflowers" are his songs, essentially, and the band of rotating musicians simply their vehicle.
"When people first saw 'Bringing Down the Horse' on tour, that wasn't even the band that made that record," he said, referring to the 1996 album that put the Wallflowers on the map, generated three hit songs — including "One Headlight" — and sold more than 6 million copies, remaining the band's most successful product to date.
"There's never been one lineup that's made two records," Dylan said. "So the constant is myself. If you think there's a sound of the Wallflowers, I'm making that with my choices in the studio and with my songs and voice."
That distinctive voice — a gravelly, cigarettes-and-whiskey baritone — has only ripened with age. T Bone Burnett, who produced "Bringing Down the Horse," compares it to artists like Bruce Springsteen and Warren Zevon, who sing "way down in their chest."
"And he's honest," Burnett said. "I loved that he didn't sing with affectations. Because we all grow up singing, and we learn tricks that we like that this singer did or that singer did — you know, a yodel here, a break there. And sometimes those are all right ... But at the end of the day, it's storytelling. And I think Jakob is a very good, pure storyteller."
Dylan wrote his first mature song, "6th Avenue Heartache," when he was 18. His early bands in Los Angeles — the Bootheels, the Apples — foreshadowed the group he dubbed the Wallflowers, who released their first album in 1992 to little success. Four years later, "the band was still trying to become a band, and learning how to be a band," Burnett said. "It took months to get that album together."
But the producer was impressed with young Dylan's "killer" songs, and his courage. Burnett has known Dylan since the singer was 3, having played on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour with Bob Dylan, Jakob's father. "I thought he was a making a courageous choice to go into music, you know, in the wake of his father."
Commercial success tapered for subsequent Wallflowers albums — "Breach" in 2000, "Rebel, Sweetheart" in 2005 — but Dylan made his peace early on with not wanting to chase popularity. And with rare exceptions, like some electronics on the 2002 album "Red Letter Days," he never contorted his style to meet the changing trends of the day.
He remains grateful for the blockbuster year he had around 1996 and '97 — playing "Saturday Night Live," winning Grammys — but he's circumspect about the ephemeral nature of fame.
"I don't change that much year to year, but people change a lot from 12 to 16," he said. "So being in a group that actually people come along with you, it's not easily done. If someone buys your record and likes it, it can mean the world to them. But then a few years later, they're in college and they're into different things. That's the story of a lot of music, a lot of rock bands."
Dylan believes he only got better after "Bringing Down the Horse." "For a lot of people, that wouldn't make sense, that comment," he said. "But I've written songs I was tremendously proud of that just didn't get noticed. But they're not for everybody. 'One Headlight's' for everybody. I don't know why. '6th Avenue's' for everybody. I don't know why. But then 'Up from Under's' not. But that's where the good stuff is for writers, really."
"Exit Wounds" reflects a new stage in life for Dylan, with "more road behind me than ahead of me." In conversation, he sounds most like an old man when complaining that making beats isn't musicianship, and that "think tank" songwriters in Nashville aren't writing meaningful stories. But in general, Dylan is as laid-back and upbeat as his new record.
If there's one recurring theme to all of his work, he said, it's perseverance: "I always want hope in my songs. And it can be 99 percent not, but I want 1 percent hope, because I want to feel like that myself. ... I don't want to put that extra negativity in the world."
Dylan believes the Wallflowers will continue to play on, regardless of who's beside him or the occasional "solo" record or cover album (like the recent "Echo in the Canyon," a celebration of the 1960s Laurel Canyon scene). Whatever else the Wallflowers is, it's his lifelong project.
"It's like going back and making 'Jaws 5,'" Dylan said. "It's just my continuation of that thing I started a long time ago. It still matters to me a lot, and there's still a lot of work to be done."
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