For a while there, Jakob Dylan was really good at not being his father. With a sly wink of his startling blue eyes — famously captured in heartthrob clarity on the cover of Rolling Stone — Bob's kid politely sidestepped his lineage with pop panache. His roots-rockin' Wallflowers were the MTV pretties of 1996, One Headlight and 6th Avenue Heartache spinning in ubiquity. The poetry was there — shades of papa, sure — but the hooks stayed with you in the shower. No direction home? Not for Jakob. He set his sights for straight up the charts.
But over the past decade or so, Young Master Dylan, now 40, ditched his fellow 'flowers, and unplugged his electric guitar. He still didn't want to be hounded by family — but he didn't want to be John Mayer, either. The transition, an awkward pop folk, wasn't always likable or engaging.
But on his new solo album, the mesmerizing Women + Country, Jakob has finally realized that wanting to be your father when you grow up isn't such a crime after all. In fact, a lot of hall of famers — Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp included — have wanted to be Bob, too.
On the 11-track Women + Country, Jakob hires the hottest producer in all the land: T Bone Burnett, whose masterstrokes of gothic kudzu graced Alison Krauss and Robert Plant's near-perfect Raising Sand album and, most recently, the Oscar-winning Crazy Heart soundtrack. Burnett loves creepy, atmospheric noises (pedal steel, guttural horns, ethereal gauze and steel-string tears); he also digs unique, possibly haunted voices. And as Dylan's solid-husky croon issues out warnings and whispers — like Bob's voice without the barbed-wire mouthwash — the backing vocals are provided throughout by Neko Case and Kelly Hogan, twangy sweethearts of the rodeo.
Dylan has a tricky pen, and when he's talking about women or country isn't always clear — which is very much the point. Lend a Hand is probably about our confused nation: "The hourglass is sitting there on the table / Filled on both sides now." And Smile When You Call Me That might be a bittersweet love story: "I'm drunk and you're insane / I can't quit and you won't change."
However, sing-along opener Nothing But the Whole Wide World, an itinerant travelogue mixed with a grown-up nursery rhyme, coyly merges both themes. It is songs such as this one that keep you glued: "God wants us busy, never giving up / He wants nothing but the whole wide world for us."
Thirty years ago, you might have called this a folk album. Twenty years ago, you might have called it a country album. And when Burnett and Dylan summon voodoo drums and funereal Basin Street horns on Standing Eight Count, you could even call it an apocalyptic rock album. Whatever the case, with its shifting moods, personas and beats, with its wordplay, wisdom and musicianship, Women + Country keeps you guessing, wondering, daydreaming. It's not always easy or obvious, but it's always captivating. And wouldn't Dear Ol' Dad be proud of that?
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in Floridian.