Jakob Dylan: “Women and Country”
No, Women and Country is not the latest solo album by acclaimed producer T-Bone Burnett— though you’d be forgiven for thinking so. It’s actually the work of former Wallflower Jakob Dylan, who doesn’t sound much like T-Bone, either as a singer or a lyricist, but it’ll take a couple of listens to the record to figure out exactly who or what he does sound like, so pervasive and enthralling is Burnett’s ace production. There’s a reason critics are focusing on the way the record sounds instead of the contents of its songs: Burnett is a winsome sonic curator who’s on a serious role, coming off a Grammy win for producing Robert Plant and Allison Krauss and an Oscar for writing a tune for the film Crazy Heart— a winning streak that continues with this lovely, elegant recording. Dylan, on the other hand? Well, let’s just say that on-record charisma is not his greatest asset.
So it’s to his credit that he ultimately makes his dry persona work, and if T-Bone wins the lion’s share of the critical adoration, well, that’s just the price Dylan pays for penning songs that are as intentionally dry as these. Consider Women and Country as a sort of contemplative, somber Western– an album if rich cinematic scope and vibrant detail, something that’s warm and lush even as it’s a bit dry and dusty. It’s certainly different from the sparse, folk-oriented approach of Dylan’s solo debut, produced by Rick Rubin. Burnett seems to bring his vast knowledge of country and Western music, as well as film, to bear here, creating a soundscape resembling some alternative-reality Americana, a harsh and dusty plain with weathered features mirrored by Dylan’s own: He’s the straight man, the weary narrator, grave and severe and initially a little too guarded to make much of an impression. But the album opens up, and so does Dylan; his gravitas and straight face become assets, for the songs are rich with sadness and desperation.
It’s a very different set of songs than the ones from Seeing Things, or from any Wallflowers album, for that matter. The album title suggests a split between love songs and protest songs, but that’s not quite it at all; befitting the album’s sweeping, cinematic focus, Dylan pans the camera back from the more intimate songs of Seeing Things for a set of songs that survey human hardship and suffering on a wider scale– the scale of human fallenness and civilization’s decline, asking big questions and leaving a gaping void for the Divine to fill– assuming He’s listening, and we’re not a lost cause. Dylan sings of truth’s demise and justice’s corruption, of a need for grace and a refusal to accept it. His songs are desolate, but, strangely, not dispiriting: He sings with rugged humanity and compassion, and the songs have a sort of enveloping sadness to them.
The production helps; Burnett’s work here is elegant, elegiac, and oddly inviting. He wraps these songs in vast, wide flourishes of pedal steel, violin, and at times horns. He creates mood, yes, but also physical, tangible places: Witness how effortlessly he conjures a saloon for the smokey, tipsy “They’ve Trapped Us Boys,” or summons a midnight cabaret on “Lend a Hand”– complete with Marc Ribot’s sinister, sneaking guitar lines and a drums-and-horns stomp that splits the difference between Joe Henry and Tom Waits.
That’s one of the few tracks that has a little energy to it, and it must be said that, in one sense, Dylan and Burnett bring out the worst in each other: Both men are confined to only one speed these days, and the album is very much stuck in a sort of pensive, meditative tempo. That makes it a little difficult to warm up to at first, but Women and Country is nothing if not a grower, and ultimately the songs are enhanced by their smokey atmospherics, their crawling pace, their grave lyrics, the ghostly harmonies by Neko Case and Kelly Hogan– stylistic flourishes that all work in perfect tandem to make Dylan’s second solo album something focused and profound, the work of many different artists acting together to create something that demands patience and rewards it in spades.