The Wallflowers' Bringing Down the Horse is certainly a great album, as many fans will attest, but it's not their best.
The Wallflowers’ breakout album, their sophomore effort Bringing Down the Horse (1996), recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. Bringing Down the Horse, which was produced by T. Bone Burnett, brought Jakob Dylan into the limelight as more than just Bob Dylan’s son, with the singles “6th Avenue Heartache”, “Three Marlenas”, and “One Headlight”, which won two Grammy awards for the band, becoming rock-radio staples. The traditional narrative of the Wallflowers following the success of Bringing Down the Horse is that in the four years it took the band to release their follow-up,(Breach), the spotlight seemed to have moved on. While Bringing Down the Horse, went platinum, (Breach) only went gold.
When the band’s follow-up record, Red Letter Days, came out in 2002, they had forgone the rich lyricism and intricate sound that had been developing on Bringing Down the Horse, and reached its zenith in Breach, instead choosing to produce a straight-ahead rock album that while not bad in any way was repetitive. Rebel, Sweetheart (2005) was a step back in the right direction, but the incisive, specific, and intensely personal qualities of Dylan’s lyrics had been dulled through the excessive flourishes of Brendan O’Brien’s production techniques, creating a disappointing sense of sameness in many of the songs. Then came the hiatus. It was seven years until the next Wallflowers album, Glad All Over (2012) during which time Dylan released two solo albums (2008's Seeing Things and 2010's Women and Country). While Glad All Over was largely a return to form for the band, it hasn't displaced Bringing Down the Horse and (Breach) as the band’s two strongest, let alone (Breach)’s lofty place, in my estimation.
Because Bringing Down the Horse is the Wallflowers’ most popular and critically acclaimed album, most people would argue that it's their best album. It’s not just “One Headlight” and the other singles that are strong. Bringing Down the Horse is a deeply textured, energetic record by a band coming into their own and not afraid to give it all they’ve got on each track. Indeed, there isn’t a bad song on the album. It’s excellent at the top: that five-song punch of “One Headlight”, “6th Avenue Heartache”, “Bleeders,” “Three Marlenas”, and “The Difference” is killer. It sags a little bit until the album closer, “Wish I Felt Nothing”, but the less classic songs such as “Angel On My Bike” are memorable and enjoyable. But even though Bringing Down the Horse is certainly a great album and the one that people will most likely remember, it’s not the one I would pick to exemplify the best of the Wallflowers.
That honor belongs to (Breach). If Bringing Down the Horse is the best-loved champion athlete, then (Breach) is its more mercurial sibling sitting in the bleachers observing the world turn and feeling himself turned, as well. What Bringing Down the Horse does in terms of really digging into Dylan’s poetic veins of storytelling and emotion, blending the general with the specific, the witnessed with the experienced, (Breach) does in a more mystifying and less straightforward way, ultimately providing a far more thought-provoking experience.
Take the first track on (Breach), “Letters From the Wasteland”. With the first few chords the relaxed, wistful sound heard in “One Headlight” from Bringing Down the Horse takes on darker, more brooding tones. “Letters From the Wasteland” is more tense and less carefree lyrically, even though the songs share similar rhythm. The hope of a new beginning indicated in “One Headlight” has been replaced with something altogether more cynical and meditative, even as the lyrics are both seemingly personal: “we can drive it home with one headlight” has become the solitary, regretful “it may be two to tango, but boy, it’s one to let go.” Companionship and memory of friendship are tossed aside for something more brutal and harsh, with lyrics like “you’re every bridge I should have burned, every lesson I’ve unlearned” emphasizing pain and a sour ending to something we're not privy to.
What's immediately noticeable about the difference in sound quality on these two records, even from the first songs, is that compared to the meticulous, rich production of (Breach) by Andrew Slater and Michael Penn, Bringing Down the Horse’s sound is downright thin. On (Breach), every instrument is mixed to perfection, allowing two guitars, piano, drums, and vocals to share the spotlight at the same time. Just listen to that last chorus and outro from “Letters From the Wasteland” -- it’s robust and pulsing with life, animated by something more than enthusiasm and pure energy: a confidence tempered by knowledge, wisdom, and experience, which, again, is emphasized by the lyrical themes of (Breach) as a whole.
With Bringing Down the Horse, the band was primed and poised for fame, ready to prove themselves. With (Breach), this fame starts to turn sour, as we can see in the lyrics of the next two tracks, “Hand Me Down” and “Sleepwalker”. While Dylan doesn't discuss his relationship with Bob in the public sphere, it's easy to view “Hand Me Down” as the embittered projection of a son onto his father. With lyrics like “you won’t ever amount to much […] you won’t ever make us proud […] [you’re] living proof evolution’s through,” tone might impose some imagined Bob-Jakob dynamic onto “Hand Me Down” as if the successful father disapproves of his son’s choices and efforts, and lets him know over a gentle mid-tempo guitar riff that “we’ve all made good use of you / But you won’t be needed again”.
Alternately, “Hand Me Down” can be seen as Dylan’s rebuke to the public itself, acknowledging but not apologizing for not living up to his father in their eyes. This grappling with fame continues on “Sleepwalker”, where Dylan dissociates from his own life, “sleepwalking” through scenes in someone else’s movie, and asks the recipient of the lyrics to protect him from something unknown, something dangerous: “take this knife / You may see someone tonight / You’d be the one who saves my life / When I'm dead asleep dreaming”. Much like “Letters From the Wasteland”, these lyrics are downright bitter and acidic even as the melody serves as a disarmingly upbeat counterpoint.
The fourth track on (Breach) is probably not easy for a lot of listeners: “I’ve Been Delivered” is brimming with mixed metaphor and lyrics so abstract and hard to understand that it resists classification. It’s not an uptempo song or a ballad; it’s not about love or heartbreak and, despite the title, it doesn’t seem to refer to religion. Yet “I’ve Been Delivered” has the most compelling lyrics on the album, as Jakob Dylan combines difficult, wordy lines like “now I'd rather bleed out a long stream from being lonely and feel blessed / Well than drown, laying face down in a puddle of respect” and “I have drawn blood from the neckline when vampires were in fashion / You know I'd even learn to cut my throat / If I thought I could fit in”. It’s at times, infuriatingly complicated, and perhaps even overly so, but that’s what makes it worth a re-listen.
“Witness”, the fifth track on the album, is actually the weakest of the bunch, but is the most brutal, and demonstrates the way (Breach) combines the cruel and the innocuous -- almost to the point of parody: “Happy birthday, no one cares,” is an actual line from the song, and it’s downright clumsy. But “Witness” is nonetheless important because, in a career of writing songs that balance complex emotions so well, it’s a rare misstep in that it just goes for the jugular without Dylan’s usual grace.
“Some Flowers Bloom Dead”, the sixth track (and my personal favorite Wallflowers song) is the most straightforward song on the album: it describes a relationship that didn’t work out, and digs into the aftermath. But there’s a reason “The Difference” from Bringing Down the Horse is one of the Wallflowers’ better songs, and this rule holds true with “Some Flowers Bloom Dead”. When the band wants to, they can do rock really, really well: the melody and lyrics of “Some Flowers Bloom Dead” complement one another perfectly, and it’s easy to follow. The production values of “Some Flowers Bloom Dead” shine here, much like they do in “Letters From the Wasteland”--the song’s outro has an ideal mix, where somehow nearly every instrument is audible and layered for maximum impact.
And that chorus! The chorus of “Some Flowers Bloom Dead”, with an extra hook pre-chorus, is probably one of the best choruses in any song I’ve ever heard: “Now in another world I could learn to forget / But 'til then I'm here making room for new regrets / Now some flowers they never bloom / And some flowers just bloom dead.” Like any good rock chorus, you can sing along to it after just one listen and it sounds familiar even if you’ve never heard it before.
(Breach) continues with another challenge to the listener: the next two tracks are ballads. Having more than one ballad in a row risks destroying momentum and creating a limp lull in the flow of an album, but because these two ballads are so different sonically, and so related lyrically, the attempt works. “Mourning Train”, the first, sounds almost like a bluegrass ballad, using a thudding handclap sound to punctuate the plodding, gentle, almost sluggish pace. “Up From Under”, in contrast, is spare and light--it consists largely of Jakob’s voice and an acoustic guitar.
Lyrically, it tells the same sort of story but in different ways: a classic story of someone coming from a small town to the big city and feeling a sense of loss and regret as a result. But if that is the case, then the order almost seems backwards: “Mourning Train” details the narrator’s sense of failure and their wish to come back home: “Mama don't you send me no love this month / 'cause my heart is all used up / and mama I wanna come home / I wanna get back home.” “Up From Under” is less pessimistic: the narrator is only beginning to be disenchanted with what was once the goal—the “coast with the big city lights.”
“Murder 101”, the penultimate track (featuring guest vocals from Elvis Costello), uses metaphor in the way “Some Flowers Bloom Dead” does—in this case, though, a scorned relationship is linked to violence and killing, rather than something that merely wilted to death. “Find yourself another heart that needs a rest / Tie a hook onto a single thread / Drop it down beneath the chest” in “Murder 101” replaces the more forgiving “we didn’t make it / We did not pull through / You shouldn't blame me / I don’t blame you,” from “Some Flowers Bloom Dead”, serving as an uptempo dash of pure cynicism, lyrically, if not sonically, echoing “Witness” and “Hand Me Down” in that regard.
(Breach) ends with “Birdcage” and hidden track “Babybird”-- another paired set of ballads that, once again, risk creating an unnecessary lull to close out the record. “Birdcage” is almost as abstract as “I’ve Been Delivered” and feels as much like a specific vignette as “Three Marlenas” did on Bringing Down the Horse. It’s more focused on imagery and creating something visual for the listener rather than professing any romantic tendencies. The last lines of the song are the following: “On your knees in the rain with a basket of flowers just for me / As the bells in the trees up above all swung and rang softly / You said you rang them for me / For me,” indicating that along this extremely volatile road of emotions that is the journey of (Breach), there's some semblance of peace and contentment to be found. “Babybird” almost feels like a trite way to end (Breach), with its music-box sound, muffled vocals, and gentle lyrics. “Now bring back your velvet heart / And we'll make you brand new feathers
/ Sleep through the morning light / With your arms around your brother”, is the most positive expression on this entire album, and the song as a whole feels like a lullaby -- completely absent of the viciousness of earlier tracks, creating a sense of whiplash.
The album’s title, (Breach), is very nearly a description of what the songs promise -- an opportunity to pierce through the armor of fame, swagger, and success we might have assumed the Wallflowers would have developed after the success of Bringing Down the Horse. It’s not an easy listen, and it’s a downer a lot of the time, but not uniformly so -- there are some small rays of hope poking through the darkness. The turbulent tone and sentiment of the lyrics, with observations so direct as to be painful and mysterious enough to feel playful, coupled with an incredible variety of melodies and sounds, ultimately gives the listener the best sense of what the Wallflowers offer as a band.
Deborah Krieger is a freelance arts and culture writer with a background in art history and film and media studies. She can be found at i-on-the-arts.com