Sunday, December 3, 2017

Discography: The Wallflowers

Like almost everyone, I first heard The Wallflowers when "One Headlight" was omnipresent. I was still developing as a music fan, so that song was a footnote in my memory when their following record was released. It was reading a review of it in Time magazine that made me seek out these new songs, and ultimately led me to become a fan of the band. Over the years, my thoughts on the band have ebbed and flowed, but no matter what was happening I might not have agreed with, it didn't diminish my enjoyment of their best records, which sit comfortably in my collection. One of these recent revisitings sparked my thoughts on them, so I thought the time was right to look back at all of their releases.

The Wallflowers (1992)

Like many bands, this was a rough beginning. The elements of a rootsy style of rock and roll were there, but JAkob Dylan was still finding his feet as a songwriter, and because of that, the album is not focused enough. The songs wander a bit, are often too long, and lack the sharp-edged songwriting he would later develop. This is an embryonic version of the band, and its one that is a footnote not worthy of spending more time on than that. Skip.

Bringing Down The Horse (1996)

The multi-platinum classic, the album everyone knows, and for once I'm not going to try to discount that success. This album had the hit(s), and for good reason. In the span on just one album, Dylan was able to grow by decades as a songwriter, honing his craft into a melodic version of American poetry even his father was never able to. Every song here is deftly written, well-executed, and a time capsule of what Americana rock and roll was. In fact, the only criticism I have of the record is that the sound is too titled towards this acoustic instruments, so much so that the moments when the band is trying to kick into gear don't have the punch they need, with the exception of "One Headlight", which remains one of the best songs of the 90s. Essential.

(Breach) (2000)

This is the album that caught my attention before ever hearing a note of it. If "Bringing Down The Horse" was the band developing their craft, this is where they mastered it. "(Breach)" is not a record dissimilar to its predecessor, but it takes everything The Wallflowers were to the next level. The push and pull is accentuated here, with the rock songs given more muscle and interplay, while the softer tracks mine the depths of the human condition. Dylan's poetry goes deeper than ever, culminating in one of my favorite lines, "I can't fix something this complex any more than I can build a rose". That is the maturity on display, which is then wrapped up in an ever stronger melodic foundation. It's absolutely brilliant stuff, that sadly is rarely recognized. The magnum opus.

Red Letter Days (2002)

After hitting their peak, the band needed to find a new wrinkle to carry on. For this album, the band highlighted their pop sensibilities, which had been slowly showing themselves. They commit to that on this album, which is their most mainstream, and is a slickly recorded set of songs that was designed for radio airplay. In large part, it works. "When You're On Top", "How Good It Can Get", and "Everybody Out Of The Water" are as close to arena rock as the band ever got, while the deeper cuts maintained that melodic engagement. Dylan's poetry waned here, but that was (I think) intentional. This was a more immediate album, and it works exceedingly well in the context of early 2000s pop/rock. Very Good.

Rebel, Sweetheart (2005)

With the hits drying up, the band needed to pivot once more. This time, they went back to their rootsy, Americana feeling, but did so with their years of experience and growth to show for it. That made this album what their debut had tried and failed to be. The songwriting fuses the muscular guitar work of "(Breach)" to the melodies of "Red Letter Days", leaving the best fusion of the band's various identities. This is an album that works on multiple levels of engagement, from the surface level pop to the deeper craft of songwriting. Perhaps for that reason, it's the album I come back to most often. If the world had not begun to shift under the feet of the rock industry, this is an album that should have started a second act for the band. Excellent.

Glad All Over (2012)

A hiatus ensued after "Rebel, Sweetheart" that saw Dylan release two solo records. I had assumed The Wallflowers were defunct, but then news came they were coming back from the dead. The world of rock and roll had changed so much since their last record that it was not clear they had a place anymore. This album showed they were aware of that, which is why it was so painful to listen to. Instead of doubling down on themselves, and targeting the fans they already had, they instead tried to co-opt the sound of the time, in search of a new audience. That meant Dylan, a classic American songwriter, was trying to write around heavier rhythms and less guitars. This wasn't the band anyone remembered, and it didn't work with their strengths either. It sounded like an old band trying to stay relevant, and aside from one or two tracks that snuck through hints of their olden days, it was an album that made me think staying in hibernation might not have been such a bad idea. Disheartening.

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