Strange as it seems, nearly a decade has passed since the Wallflowers’ sophomore album, Bringing Down the Horse, caught fire and launched the band straight into the mainstream. Buoyed by hits “6th Avenue Heartache”, “One Headlight”, and “Three Marlenas”, the album was the perfect roots rock antidote to the grunge hangover of the mid-’90s. Not only did the band become requisite fare for both pop radio and MTV, lead singer Jakob Dylan also became an instant sex symbol, his face adorning the cover of every music and teen magazine on the rack. He even made the cover of Rolling Stone — which, back then, was still somewhat of an honor — his ice blue eyes staring into the soul of every female between the ages of 15 and 30. Such achievements negated the notion that, being the son of Bob Dylan, the younger Dylan was nothing more than an anointed curiosity. Rather, back in 1996, Jakob Dylan and the Wallflowers looked like the logical successor to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, a rock band with both chops and a sense of history that could make the charts without diluting the music into teeny mush.
Much has changed since then, both within the music industry and the band. Rock is increasingly an endangered species on FM radio, forcing many stations to switch formats. And while roots rock/alt-country is a blooming movement within the musical underground, the masses prefer “artists” whose music is digestible and expendable (note the American Idol phenomenon). Perhaps this is why with each album since Bringing Down the Horse, the Wallflowers have garnered less and less attention. Aside from a few semi-hits, the band has failed to generate the buzz they did back in 1996. Adding to this declining profile is the loss of key members Mario Calire and Michael Ward, who respectively served as drummer and lead guitarist during the Horse heyday. Still, while many would move onto other projects or fade away forever, Jakob Dylan has soldiered on, writing songs in the same pop-inspired roots fashion he did in the beginning. Moreover, by refusing to pack it in when the musical winds shifted, Dylan proved that he was in it for the right reasons, not simply to capitalize on fads or his musical bloodline. Rebel, Sweetheart, the band’s latest offering, is a solid collection of carefully-crafted rock tunes that display the Wallflowers’ growing maturity and skill.
“Days of Wonder”, the first track on the album, announces the overarching sound of the album: straight-forward rock songs that don’t seek to alter the rock song format so much as nail it with diligence. The song is perfect, time-honored rock, marked by a pounding beat, crunchy guitars, and catchy chorus. Brendan O’Brien’s production is crisp and unassuming, giving equal emphasis to each member of what is, quite obviously, a mature, confident band. Also evident is Dylan’s growing strength as a lyricist, his words both direct and poetic: “Take my body and my mind / My heart is far behind / With one dozen poems in my ears / Ricocheting wild.” Been reading Whitman, Jakob?
Perhaps Dylan has also been reading his Bible, for his lyrics are full of biblical references. In ‘The Passenger”, for example, Dylan ponders the timeless question of why we have to pay for the stain of original sin: “Adam took the apple, I was not involved / I’m not responsible for how lost we are…” Then there’s “God Says Nothing Back”, which wonders why life gives so few clear signposts along the way: “Through the morning silver-frosted glow / God says nothing back but I told you so…” Though the songs deal with heavy topics — religion, war, death and rebirth — the album never sounds preachy or dire, which is a testament to both Dylan’s lyrical skill and the band’s ability to provide proper context.
And while all of the songs adhere to the standard rock setup of guitar, drums, bass, and keyboards, the Wallflowers explore the various influences within rock’s history. Songs like “The Beautiful Side of Somewhere” and “All Things New Again” are classic pop rock, full of sunny melodies and guitar hooks. “How Far You’ve Come” veers towards jazz, marked by hushed, dancing guitar notes, brushed drums, and lounge piano. “From the Bottom of My Heart” features a folk-inflected rolling guitar line and soft, atmospheric keyboards. Indeed, Rebel, Sweetheart is a quick tour through rock’s history, which is probably why the Wallflowers don’t feel the temptation to experiment; if your band is solid enough to mine the diverse elements or rock ‘n’ roll, why throw in unnecessary elements?
Rebel, Sweetheart doesn’t contain any songs that beg to be played 15 times a day on pop radio (mainly because pop radio is dreadful, as you all know), but the Wallflowers don’t need chart-topping singles to validate their career. In fact, they’ve got much more going for them than pretty faces on magazine covers. Dylan continues to grow as a lyricist, blending personal experience, poetic imagery, and — the old standby for serious songwriters — biblical allusions. Of course, he’ll never quite escape the pointless, irrelevant comparisons to his father, but Dylan is becoming a respectable career musician in his own right. Rebel, Sweetheart is ample testament that the Wallflowers know the roots of rock, and they’re not necessarily interested in tampering with a good formula — popularity be damned.