Jakob Dylan

Musical legacy

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By Bill DeMain  

"Happy birthday to the war," Jakob Dylan sings in the opening song, "Days of Wonder." Of course, the wish is made facetiously, and the only candles he'd like to blow out are the ones that flicker with the madness and convoluted logic of the hawks who believe war is the answer.

While it's tempting to read this song and powerful companion pieces like "Passenger," "The Beautiful Side of Somewhere" and "God Says Nothing" as comments on our current situation, the songs don't name names. It could be the Spanish-American War as easily as Iraq. Love is eternal. Unfortunately, so is war.

The Wallflowers made their big splash in 1996 with the multi-platinum Bringing Down The Horse, propelled by top-down summer hits "6th Avenue Heartache," "One Headlight" and "Three Marlenas." The record sold 4 million copies and won a pair of Grammys. Follow-ups Breach (2000) and Red Letter Days (2002) were self-assured strides forward, laying the ground for this, the band's most assured record yet.

Hard-hitting, passionate, melodic and comfortable with its less than cheery themes, it's a Darkness on the Edge of Town for the new millennium.

Like Springsteen (and like his own father), Jakob Dylan writes songs that operate on several levels. For example, "God Says Nothing" slow-dances with the apocalypse, laying out its case poetically:

Seems like the world's gone underground
Where no gods or heroes dare to go down
As teardrops from a hole in heaven come
Overhead like ravens dropping down like bombs
Through the morning silver-frosted glow
God says nothing back but I told you so

But it also works as a hauntingly beautiful pop song, with an unshakable melody. Similarly, "I Am a Building" is, on first listening, an anthropomorphic imagining - what if a building could talk? Set to an almost ska-like, offbeat rhythm, and another ear-grabbing melody (Dylan has an abundance on this album), it draws you in until you realize that the song could actually be about isolation and mistrust, those dual afflictions of modern times.

Produced with gusto by Brendan O'Brien (Pearl Jam, Train, Matthew Sweet), Rebel, Sweetheart is both no-fuss retro and radio-ready modern, all walk-tall guitars and TNT drums. The playing by the group (keyboardist Rami Jaffee, bassist Greg Richling and new drummer Fred Eltringham) is tight and tasteful. But what gives the album its heartbeat is the songwriting, crackling with a personal language that is rich in metaphor and Biblical allusion.

If you're looking for an album that tackles the big questions - God, love, time, death - while still giving you something to sing along to, here it is. Protest songs never sounded so good.

Musician and journalist Bill DeMain writes frequently about music. His work has appeared in numerous publications including Entertainment Weekly, MOJO, and Musician.