Jakob Dylan looks like a guy who's finally comfortable in his own skin. As he walks into the restaurant in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in New York City, the 30-year-old frontman for the folk-rock band the Wallflowers, whose lyrics are often dour, even has a slight smile on his face. His black hair is lightly tousled. As he sits down, he removes his wraparound dark glasses to reveal wide, soulful eyes that seem to beg for music-video closeups. He admits freely that he used to have a reputation for being difficult ("People interpret shyness as rudeness," he says), but today he appears relaxed. He brings his recently acquired equanimity to his engaging new CD, "Breach" (Interscope). There are even lyrics on the CD in which Dylan, in a more forthright way than he has in the past, deals with his relationship to the musical legacy of his famous father: the great Bob Dylan.
The younger Dylan (his mother Sara Lowndes and his father divorced in 1977) says music was always around his house as a child, and he started going out on the road with his father when he was "maybe three or four." He took guitar lessons when he was 12 ("I hated it. I couldn't conceive of doing music homework"), and after high school he spent about three months at Parsons School of Design in New York City before dropping out and devoting himself to music. In 1992 his band, the Wallflowers, released its self-titled debut. It was a critical and commercial flop. "I thought (40,000 copies sold) was tremendous," Dylan says. "But obviously, from a business point of view, that's not so outstanding." After a change of labels (from Virgin to Interscope), the band's second album, "Bringing Down the Horse," became a surprise multiplatinum hit in 1997.
"Bringing Down the Horse," despite huge sales, was an affable album with a couple of wildly catchy songs (notably "One Headlight" and "6th Avenue Heartache") and more than a few skippable ones. "Breach" lacks the grabby singles, but overall it's a more consistent work than the Wallflowers' last release, and a more emotionally daring one. "The first two records—I just wrote songs," says Dylan. "I didn't really think people were going to hear them." The music on Breach ranges from the elegiac folk of "Mourning Train" to the charging pop-rock of "Murder 101" (with backing vocals from Elvis Costello). Dylan's low, dusky voice makes everything he sings seem like a shared secret; his songs are oblique enough to invite investigation but not so impenetrable as to resist understanding.
Dylan's lyrics can be cagily defensive, as on "Sleepwalker": "It's where I'm from that lets them think I'm a whore/ I'm an educated virgin." They can also be smartly bitter, as on "I've Been Delivered." On that track he sings of "laying face down in a puddle of respect." But one of the most striking things about Breach is the sound of Dylan facing up to his own burdensome legacy. He's tried to run from it, he's tried to ignore it, but now he seems to recognize that it's great source material. "You won't ever amount to much," he sings in "Hand Me Down." "How could you think you would be enough?" Dylan says he has written about the subject in the past, but in more veiled terms. "I think everybody has expectations put upon them," he adds. "It's a song that maybe I wouldn't have allowed myself to write a few years ago, because I was more inhibited. On this record I decided that I deserve to write about anything and not wonder if it's going to be scrutinized."
Even with the familial fissures hinted at in "Hand Me Down," Dylan says he views his upbringing in a positive light. "I think that my family, me and my brothers and sisters (he has three siblings), turned out as fairly positive and decent people," he says. "Certainly we've all heard stories about people who live in high-profile families who didn't. So in that regard, a lot of the proper things were done when we were younger. And there's a lot of that I'd like to emulate, because I think there's a way to make it work." However, unlike his father, Dylan (who is married, lives in Los Angeles and has three small children) isn't big on taking his family on the road. "I don't think it's the greatest place for kids, honestly," he says. "It's a lot of traveling, a lot of hotel rooms; it's hard enough on grown people. I think kids need a sense of home."
So what does the elder Dylan make of his son's success? "It's a different world than what he does," Dylan says of his father. "I don't think people of his generation are that impressed when you're all over mtv and on the cover of magazines. I think they're smart enough and they've been around long enough to know those things can be temporary and fleeting, and that doesn't mean you have a career. It just means you're having a nice moment. But he's positive about it." So Jakob Dylan is having his moment, and to judge from the sound of "Breach," he has the talent to make that moment last.