Not since The Who first sang their 1971 classic about a socially alienated ”sad man” have music fans so desperately wanted to unravel the mystery behind blue eyes. Alas, for 30-year-old Jakob Dylan — son of Bob, possessor of that sculptured jawline and piercing near-turquoise stare — interest in his famous lineage and striking appearance have often overshadowed the fact that this blue-eyed soul has grown into one of pop’s subtlest young songwriters.
Of course, Dylan is partly to blame. His retreating behind inscrutable lyrics (does anyone really know what went on with that One Headlight?) and refusing to talk about his dad have only further piqued interest in the subject. But what choice did he have? If he jabbered on about being the offspring of genius, he’d risk having his music subsumed by legend; if he renounced his heritage, he’d risk seeming ungrateful or alienated. So he kept his mouth shut and let the songs speak for themselves.
But now, as the Wallflowers prepare to join the Who for some New York City tour dates and release their third CD, Breach, things have changed. Dylan is finally talking about the pressures of being his father’s son. Most notably, in the mid-tempo acoustic lament ”Hand Me Down,” he writes from the perspective of a disappointed parent talking to a child: ”You won’t ever amount to much/You won’t be anyone … You’re a hand me down/It’s better when you’re not around/You feel good and you look like you should/But you won’t ever make us proud.” Songwriter Dylan puts the lie to this self-deprecating notion with the tune’s closing verse, worthy of Dylan Senior: ”Now look at you/With your worn out shoes/Living proof evolution is through/We’re stuck with you/This revolution is doomed.”
Emotional suffering, loss of relationships, and familial neglect are recurring themes on this extremely morose record. ”Witness,” a stark minor-key ballad, contains one of the iciest verses in recent memory: ”Another year, another candle’s burning/For the party girl/No one even knows you’re there/Happy Birthday/No one cares.” And ”Letters From the Wasteland” advances this simple but unforgettable image of shattered love: ”I slow dance/To this romance on my own/It may take two to tango/But boy, just one to let go.”
Musically as well, Breach offers only occasional relief from the psychic pain. The album’s 11 cuts — produced by Dylan manager Andrew Slater and singer Michael Penn — are similar to the Wallflowers’ 1996 gem Bringing Down the Horse, but with some of the exuberance removed, alternately replaced by layered instrumental fills (spooky organ trills, hints of strings and horns) and acoustic guitar fronting stripped-down arrangements. Even when the band rocks, it’s clear these boys don’t just wanna have fun; their goals are more complicated. In its best songs — the haunting first single, ”Sleepwalker,” the carnival-like ”I’ve Been Delivered,” and the Petty-esque ”Some Flowers Bloom Dead” — Breach relies on plentiful minor chords, halting rhythms, and other flourishes to parallel the downcast lyrics. The album’s coherent darkness brings to mind Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love.
That said, there’s one big knock to be made against Breach: It lacks the spark of the new, the original. Both lyrically and musically, Dylan works within traditional forms rather than pushing at boundaries the way more daring songwriters such as Tom Waits and Elvis Costello do. In fact, when Costello’s backing vocal on ”Murder 101” pushes to the front of the mix, you’re reminded of how songs like ”Watching the Detectives” redefined pop music. Dylan is more craftsman than innovator (in this way he resembles John Mellencamp), and some listeners will be put off by the feeling they’ve heard it all before.
To Dylan’s credit, though, this is a difficult time to release a thoughtful album — especially one that’s this single-mindedly personal and downbeat. After all, mega-selling acts as diverse as Hanson and No Doubt have seen their Y2K follow-ups languish, and both these bands work much harder to please. Who knows if the 4 million-plus fans who bought Horse will return for another ride? But somehow it just wouldn’t seem right that after years of being asked to speak up, Jakob Dylan finally does — only to find no one’s listening. B+