"It doesn't always have a shape / Almost never does it have a name / It maybe has a pitchfork / Maybe has a tail / But evil is alive and well." So begins the fine new album by Jakob Dylan, Seeing Things. Though Dylan has enjoyed a solid career as a performer and songwriter, and certainly passed the "Nashville hunk factor," he is not in the forefront of celebrated songwriters. The answer might rest in Dylan's sensitive singing, his slightly husky voice reminiscent of Tom Petty's. He is not a dramatic singer, and often his intimate vocals have been lost in the music. His is not a visceral art, but one that works like a meditation. His lyrics are delicate, requiring much from the listener.
The choice of Rick Rubin to produce was a perfect one. Rubin recorded Johnny Cash's final two albums—triumphs of the human spirit—and added a depth to the more commercial art of Neil Diamond. Featuring Dylan's evocative vocals and expressive acoustic guitar with minimal backup, Seeing Things might allow listeners to hear and discover his art for the first time.
The album offers 10 well-crafted songs. The lyrics are often dark, showing a fractured America in conflict, though the anti-war song, "Valley of the Low Sun," never mentions Iraq: "There's a new kind of beast getting up / That's stranger than fiction / Speaking in tongue / In the valley of the low, low sun." The lyrics recall Yeats' "rough beast," but the darkness is mitigated by the gentle voice and the quiet finger-picked melody. The effect is unsettling. Many of Dylan's lyrics are reminiscent of Rainer Maria Rilke's quieter poems, particularly "The Panther," which describes a caged beast dreaming of jungle vistas that slide invisibly into the panther's consciousness. Dylan's art works in the same way. The lyrics don't overwhelm the listener but work a bit like meditation. "Evil Is Alive and Well" warns that we may all serve the devil, but its catchy melody belies its dark intent. Though the album has images of a genie "too angry to go back" and a "bone-colored moon," not every song is dark. "Something Good This Way Comes" envisions a brighter America, praising the simple pleasures of apple pie, birds in the sky and driving down the highway with a "good woman by my side."
The album has gathered positive reviews except for a brief one in Rolling Stone. At 38, Dylan is still being compared to his father, the monster bard from Minnesota. "All Day and All Night" could be his answer to these critics when he sings, "I've got bigger secrets than you do." The reviewer argues Dylan's "lyrical gift" isn't enough to "augment the spare songs," though he admires "On Up the Mountain." "Something Good This Way Comes," he dismisses as a "feel-good pop song." Actually, Dylan's lyrical gift is enough, and though the melodies occasionally overlap, they connect with the lines in a compelling way. The passage of time will reveal this album to be an important work.
"Alone you ramble the whole of the world / through black water jungles for bliss / It's feast or famine / You eat what you kill / There's no need to bring God into this."
So the album ends with "This End of the Telescope," a foreboding, mysterious song that suggests a world ending. Searching the meaning behind Dylan's understated lyrics is part of the experience. Seeing Things may inspire many interpretations and might finally place Dylan in the front ranks of American songwriters.