Review Summary: Jakob Dylan's solo debut gives him a chance to show off his lyrical genius. Unfortunately, he sets off in the wrong direction, producing a mostly enjoyable but emotionally vacant album.
“Seeing Things” is Jakob Dylan
’s first solo effort after spending around fifteen years as the lead singer in the Wallflowers
. There, he often hid his heritage in an attempt to make his own name, and “Seeing Things” is, in a sense, a long-awaited and well-deserved unveiling. The result of his collaboration with producer Rick Rubin is a sparse collection of folk songs; the elaborate instrumentation that grew to be one of the key strengths of the Wallflowers
is all but completely dropped, leaving Dylan’s lyrics at the forefront. When the post-9/11 United States went off to war and many musical artists entwined their works with vibrant political statements, the Wallflowers
, still playing in their outdated classical-rock style, were off recording innocent songs with titles like “Days of Wonder” and “All Things New Again”. In the same style, Dylan’s writing on “Seeing Things” is, for the most part, isolated and positive.
“Valley of the Low Sun” is the exception, a deep allegory for an unnamed war (think: Iraq and Afghanistan). Told from the point of view of the soldiers, he sings delicately, “We bow down and worship these bandits and cowboys unable to hold their own guns. I know that soldiers are not paid to think, but something is making us sick.” It’s a sympathetic passage, but also harmless. The title “Seeing Things” sums up the album perfectly – throughout the ten songs Jakob Dylan
ponders and observes but takes no direct action, refraining from any sort of fiery objection or call to arms.
And that simply won’t do. After a while, Dylan seems so far removed that his pretty tunes often provoke nothing more than indifference. Everything on “Seeing Things” is enjoyable enough, and Dylan displays consistent lyrical excellence, but he simply doesn’t put his talent to good use. The tight writing takes multiple listens to unlock, and the rewards are limited. “War is Kind” is a needlessly intricate address from a soldier to his family. “Mother war is kind/Like hell but I am fine” is followed by the accusatory “Brother war is best/In the morning when you've had rest”, and similar paradoxes involve a daughter and a lover. There’s clearly more here than is evident on a literal level; the message seems to be one of conflict between someone off fighting and the pseudo-support of his misunderstanding family. Once again, though, emotion is absent. Recall the desperation of the narrator of “One Headlight”. Here, by comparison, Dylan seems apathetic.
The withdrawn and reflective style may have still worked if Dylan had his group there to back him up. The instrumental parts on “Seeing Things” are limited mostly to acoustic guitar lines with occasional drums. These parts are all fine, though the catchy combination of busy guitars and backup singing in “All Day and All Night” is the only time anything but Dylan’s singing really stands out.
Dylan does produce some great tunes, particularly the single “Something Good This Way Comes”. Here he repeats warm, sentimental phrases in lines like “Got my window open wide/I got my window open wide/I got a good woman by my side/Got a good woman on my side”, producing a song that is gentle, bittersweet, and memorable. “On Up the Mountain” benefits from its own simplicity. “You get tired, you get weak, but you won’t abandon your masterpiece” sounds heartfelt rather than sappy.
Dylan’s observations grow much more bleak in the final song, “This End of the Telescope”. He watches, once again, this time imagining that “Throats will be slashed and flags will unfurl as time will divide us in gangs”. Are we heading to self-destruction? Why? We’re left with no answers as Dylan, unfortunately, is just seeing things.