After 13 years of recording with The Wallflowers, Jakob Dylan released his first solo album, Seeing Things, in 2008. That album (which I reviewed at the time) was a lovely, low-key acoustic collection of personal and protest songs.
Two years later, Dylan’s follow-up solo effort, Women and Country, has hit shelves (and hard drives) and it makes Seeing Things sound like a Led Zeppelin album.
OK, I’m exaggerating. But Women and Country is a decidedly mellow, sometimes even sleepy album. That said, it is a thoroughly rewarding one that grows richer and more nuanced with every listen.
The celebrated T Bone Burnett takes the production reins on Women and Country and he’s as integral a part of the album as Dylan himself. He brings his trademark old-fashioned classicism to another batch of songs that could have been written in the 19th century.
Support also comes in the form of indie goddess Neko Case and her bandmate Kelly Hogan, who provide backing vocals on all but a few of the album’s ten tracks. This is one of the best-sounding albums I’ve heard in awhile.
But the star is of course Dylan himself, who has a gift for gorgeous melodies and provocative lyrics and a rough voice that suits his material to a tee. Between a handful of Wallflowers ballads and these two solo albums, Dylan has distinguished himself as the creator of perhaps the most beautiful folk pop music being written today.
Every track on the album is a highlight but I’ll single out a few of them here. Opener (and first single) ‘Nothing But the Whole Wide World’ is a fine example of the sort of timeless balladry Dylan spins out with seemingly very little effort. Written from the perspective of a laborer (a slave perhaps?), it’s a forlorn hymn that immediately gives the album its setting.
‘Truth For a Truth’ kicks off with a gorgeous slide guitar intro that simultaneously calls to mind a spaghetti western and a James Bond theme. ‘They’ve Trapped Us Boys’ is the poppiest track here, but the jaunty chorus tells of an apparent mine disaster:
Shine a light, shine a light
Holler back now, make some noise
I do believe they’ve trapped us boys
‘Smile When You Call Me That’ is perhaps my favorite song on the album, a hard-luck love song with a swaying island sound and one of Dylan’s best vocal performances:
I ain’t having luck making ends meet
If time were money then look at me
I’m richer then a poor man should be
Price of admission is much too steep
For broke uneducated clowns like me
It may be true I was the first to leave
But now I’m begging you please
My heart’s on my sleeve
And I’m tipping my hat
Can’t you at least smile
When you call me that
If I have one nitpick about Women and Country it’s the consistent mood and tempo. Burnett introduces some dirty New Orleans horns on a couple of tracks and a killer bluegrass string section on others, but all of the songs share a downbeat vibe. I suppose Dylan reserves his upbeat rock tracks for his work with The Wallflowers (who have not broken up but are simply on hiatus). But still, Seeing Things and Women and Country leave me with an urge to hear this Dylan go electric.
But that’s just a nitpick, not a complaint. There is nothing not to like about this album, or anything Dylan has released. With every passing year and new album, he solidifies the case that he’s among our finest singer-songwriters.