The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jakob Dylan has always been part cowboy-troubadour, part rabbi

Jakob Dylan’s distinctive voice — a gravelly, cigarettes-and-whiskey baritone — is center stage on his latest album with the Wallflowers, out July 9. (Alyson Aliano for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

“Maybe your heart’s not in it no more,” Jakob Dylan sings at the beginning of the new Wallflowers album. It’s a provocative thought for the rock-and-roll warhorse as he puts out his ninth studio album of original songs.

Dylan said the song is “a conversation you might have with your own muse, and just wondering if things still mean the same thing and if you’re still driven to do what you’ve been doing.”

So what’s the answer?

“I don’t know,” he said, sitting in a coffee shop in Santa Monica, Calif. “It’s just a question. It’s just maybe. Maybe your heart’s not in it no more. Because your heart has to be in everything you’re doing, or everything’s pointless.”

Dylan, 51, insisted his heart was in “Exit Wounds,” the album out July 9. It’s a return to the familiar Wallflowers sound — dive-bar guitar, piano, electric organ — though not a familiar lineup. Gone are longtime members Rami Jaffee and Greg Richling. But the band’s frontman and lead singer, who has written nearly every song, argued that “the Wallflowers” are his songs, essentially, and the band of rotating musicians simply their vehicle.

“When people first saw ‘Bringing Down the Horse’ on tour, that wasn’t even the band that made that record,” he said, referring to the 1996 album that put the Wallflowers on the map, generated three hit songs — including “One Headlight” — and sold more than 6 million copies, remaining the band’s most successful product to date.

“There’s never been one lineup that’s made two records,” Dylan said. “So the constant is myself. If you think there’s a sound of the Wallflowers, I’m making that with my choices in the studio and with my songs and voice.”

That distinctive voice — a gravelly, cigarettes-and-whiskey baritone — has only ripened with age. T Bone Burnett, who produced “Bringing Down the Horse,” compares it to artists like Bruce Springsteen and Warren Zevon, who sing “way down in their chest.”

“And he’s honest,” Burnett said. “I loved that he didn’t sing with affectations. Because we all grow up singing, and we learn tricks that we like that this singer did or that singer did — you know, a yodel here, a break there. And sometimes those are all right . . . But at the end of the day, it’s storytelling. And I think Jakob is a very good, pure storyteller.”

Dylan wrote his first mature song, “6th Avenue Heartache,” when he was 18. His early bands in Los Angeles — the Bootheels, the Apples — foreshadowed the group he dubbed the Wallflowers, who released their first album in 1992 to little success. Four years later, “the band was still trying to become a band, and learning how to be a band,” Burnett said. “It took months to get that album together.”

But the producer was impressed with young Dylan’s “killer” songs, and his courage. Burnett has known Dylan since the singer was 3, having played on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour with Bob Dylan, Jakob’s father. “I thought he was a making a courageous choice to go into music, you know, in the wake of his father.”

Commercial success tapered for subsequent Wallflowers albums — “Breach” in 2000, “Rebel, Sweetheart” in 2005 — but Dylan made his peace early on with not wanting to chase popularity. And with rare exceptions, like some electronics on the 2002 album “Red Letter Days,” he never contorted his style to meet the changing trends of the day.

He remains grateful for the blockbuster year he had around 1996 and ’97 — playing “Saturday Night Live,” winning Grammys — but he’s circumspect about the ephemeral nature of fame.

“I don’t change that much year to year, but people change a lot from 12 to 16,” he said. “So being in a group that actually people come along with you, it’s not easily done. If someone buys your record and likes it, it can mean the world to them. But then a few years later, they’re in college and they’re into different things. That’s the story of a lot of music, a lot of rock bands.”

Wolfgang Van Halen shares a famous name. His music is his own.

Dylan believes he only got better after “Bringing Down the Horse.” “For a lot of people, that wouldn’t make sense, that comment,” he said. “But I’ve written songs I was tremendously proud of that just didn’t get noticed. But they’re not for everybody. ‘One Headlight’s’ for everybody. I don’t know why. ‘6th Avenue’s’ for everybody. I don’t know why. But then ‘Up from Under’s’ not. But that’s where the good stuff is for writers, really.”

Up from Under” is a gentle, acoustic song from “Breach,” which found Dylan exploring some of his enduring imagery and storytelling by way of a longing melody. The narrator works in the country fields with his brothers, and tells his mother he’ll always write when he moves to the big city. “Mama I’m so sorry I’d forgotten,” he sings, “but now I’m looking up from under Babylon.”

There’s clearly a frustrated cowboy in Dylan, whose lyrics are often filled with horses, smoke-filled bars and rumbling trains. He even named his 2010 solo album “Women + Country.” “You just develop a language that works for you, and images that appeal to you,” he said. “I haven’t thought about it. I don’t know why there’s a lot of horses in my records.”

It’s more than just the words, though. Dylan was never destined to be a stadium rocker or a confessional, emo singer-songwriter. He’s more of a cowboy-troubadour, strumming his guitar by the campfire and spinning stories about “teardrops from a hole in heaven come like ravens dropping down like bombs” — a line from a 2005 song where he declares that “God says nothing back but ‘I told you so.’ ”

Dylan’s smoky voice often strains and searches, wrestling to leave his throat much like he searches for truth and God in his lyrics — just as his namesake in the Old Testament physically wrestled with God. There is something rabbinical about the homespun wisdom in his lyrics, offered Burnett. “It’s really giving you the right question more than giving you an answer.”

“I love these open-ended questions, where you don’t get to the bottom of it,” Burnett said. “Like his father wrote that song, ‘the answer is blowing in the wind.’ What does that mean? . . . He’s got a bit of that gift . . . There’s an old world-ness about him.”

In a song Dylan wrote for the short-lived ABC series “Six Degrees” in 2006, he sings about how “you were born and soon you will return from a stardust-covered universe, where the end is certain but it will not be rehearsed.” “You’ve got to slow your engines,” he suggests in the bridge, “when God is in pursuit.”

The songwriter pointed out that he never preaches, and never explicitly defines God. For Dylan, God is a metaphor for “whatever your preference is for boundaries and guidance, and realization that this is just not about you or these immediate things you’re seeing — there’s a greater power.”

“You have to have somebody to disappoint and watch out for,” he added. “Somebody. And if you don’t have someone in your personal life that will create that feeling, well, you could substitute that, at the very least, with God. I have plenty in my life that I hope to not disappoint.”

His lyrics are often addressed to an unidentified “you” as though he’s counseling someone, with advice like “God knows how far you’ve come.” Dylan prefers not to sing in the first person, and says that oftentimes the “you” he’s singing to is himself. Most of us know the right thing to do, he said, but it’s helpful to hear it spoken back — especially when it’s set to a lovely tune.

Fatherhood crops up in his lyrics from time to time, as in a hidden track on the “Breach” album, a lullaby addressed to his “baby bird” set to a chiming, music-box tune. Written when Dylan was a young dad — he shares four sons with his wife of nearly three decades, Paige — it’s one of his sweetest and most vulnerable songs. “I’m a father, so it’s in all my songs,” he said. “My songs encompass whoever I am. I’ve been a father for a long time, so that’s in my mind.”

At first blush, “Roots and Wings,” the lead single off the new album, seems like it could be a callback, now from the perspective of an older father. Addressing a “heavy bird” that will never get far on its own, Dylan sings: “You’re off the farm taking big-city drugs / No matter how far you get, let it sink in that I gave you roots and, baby, I gave you wings.”

Dylan quickly clarified that he’s not singing to his children there, and that it’s “not a nice song.” Without divulging details, he said it’s about people in his life who he’s helped and who haven’t shown gratitude. “I’m the one who got you in flight,” he explained, “and you’re not acting like that now.” Considering that none of his old bandmates played on this album, one is tempted to read between the lines. (Jaffee didn’t respond to a request for an interview.)

“Exit Wounds” reflects a new stage in life for Dylan, with “more road behind me than ahead of me.” In conversation, he sounds most like an old man when complaining that making beats isn’t musicianship, and that “think tank” songwriters in Nashville aren’t writing meaningful stories. But in general, Dylan is as laid-back and upbeat as his new record.

If there’s one recurring theme to all of his work, he said, it’s perseverance: “I always want hope in my songs. And it can be 99 percent not, but I want 1 percent hope, because I want to feel like that myself. . . . I don’t want to put that extra negativity in the world.”

Dylan believes the Wallflowers will continue to play on, regardless of who’s beside him or the occasional “solo” record or cover album (like the recent “Echo in the Canyon,” a celebration of the 1960s Laurel Canyon scene). Whatever else the Wallflowers is, it’s his lifelong project.

“It’s like going back and making ‘Jaws 5,’ ” Dylan said. “It’s just my continuation of that thing I started a long time ago. It still matters to me a lot, and there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

The Wallflowers perform at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9 at the Birchmere Music Hall, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, Va. $75.