Women and Country
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2010, Volume 17, #6
Written by John Metzger
Wed June 16, 2010, 06:30 AM CDT
Although he was the primary force behind The Wallflowers, Jakob Dylan has been on a mission of late to distance himself from his past in order to refashion the public’s perception of his work. His output has always been anchored by roots-oriented concepts, but under the tutelage of Rick Rubin, Dylan stripped to the bone the songs that filled his solo debut Seeing Things. In hindsight, this simple act of deconstruction served as a means to an end. With his latest endeavor, Women and Country, Dylan has begun to rebuild his music from the ground up.
With each passing year, The Wallflowers’ third outing Breach has become a bigger signpost along the road of Dylan’s career. The outing never received the widespread attention or praise that it deserved, and for a time, Dylan abandoned the ideas that he had explored on the endeavor. Many of these concepts resurfaced amidst the unvarnished arrangements of Seeing Things. The gentle atmospherics conjured by producer T Bone Burnett on Women and Country, however, step even closer to the mood that Dylan was seeking to establish with Breach.
Without a doubt, it is not easy to follow in the footsteps of a legend like Bob Dylan. For the most part, Jakob Dylan has handled his lot in life rather well, though understandably there also have been times when he has struggled in his attempts to find his own way through the process of being a songwriter. Now, a little older and, perhaps, a little wiser, Dylan appears to be more comfortable with the arrangement. Instead of running away from his father’s legacy — or, at the very least, sidestepping it — he now sounds as if he has chosen to redefine himself by wrapping his arms around his lineage.
Much has been made about the presence of Neko Case and Kelly Hogan on Women and Country. Longtime friends and collaborators, they unite their voices to tremendous effect throughout the endeavor, giving the set a faint country hue. Greg Leisz drapes notes from his pedal steel guitar across most of the tracks on Women and Country. Likewise, David Mansfield shades the accompaniments with his fiddle, banjo, and mandolin. These elements likely have caused many folks to refer the endeavor as Dylan’s first foray into country music.
Nevertheless, Women and Country is closer in spirit to the dust-bowl songs of Woody Guthrie (Smile When You Call Me That), the blues-y wails that once emanated from juke joints across the South (We Don’t Live Here Anymore), and the intoxicating junkyard jazz from some imaginary street in New Orleans (Lend a Hand). Dylan doesn’t necessarily play any of it straight. Instead, he and Burnett wrapped the arrangements in textures derived from an effective combination of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, Bob Dylan’s Modern Times, and Tom Waits’ Mule Variations.
Strangely enough, though, the music is actually the weakest part of Women and Country. By enlisting his usual cast of characters, Burnett provides ample support to Dylan. With albums ranging from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand to Elvis Costello’s Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, however, the style he has developed has begun to feel too portable. Nevertheless, the subtle textures that color each of the tracks on Women and Country dutifully bolster the mood of Dylan’s material by highlighting his melodies and pulling listeners toward his lyrics.
In a narrative sense, Women and Country might not be a conceptual endeavor. Yet, the album’s reiterative images congeal to give it an overarching perspective. The songs offer glimpses at the lives of hard-working people who have been worn down by their experiences but refuse to give up the fight, regardless of how futile it may be. Arguably, they might not even know what it is anymore.
Over the course of Women and Country, Dylan paints portraits of a post-apocalyptic world that has been driven to the brink of destruction by a series of unnamed natural disasters, environmental devastation, and financial ruin. Its inhabitants cling to religion even as they question their spirituality, and much like those who live within the dying American empire, there exists an unwavering sense of pride that keeps them moving toward the cliff. While Women and Country initially seems to be filled with material that drifts past in a sleepily pleasant fashion, it ultimately proves itself to be an album full of subtleties that hauntingly capture the stinging reality of the country’s past, present, and possible future.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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