Someone had to say it, so in 1993, Adam Duritz did: “I wanna be Bob Dylan.” To some degree, the Counting Crows frontman was speaking for every roots-rock singer-songwriter on the planet. Everyone except Jakob Dylan.
The youngest of four children born to Bob Dylan and Sara Lowndes, Jakob knew comparisons to his dad were inevitable. But this curly haired, poetically minded folk rocker wanted to hone his songwriting craft and build his audience the right way. He certainly didn’t have anything handed to him. By the time he and his band, The Wallflowers, broke through with Bringing Down the Horse — a landmark ’90s rock album released 20 years ago on May 21, 1996 — Dylan had suffered the same disappointments and frustrations felt by many aspiring rockers whose dads aren’t generational spokesmen.
Bringing Down the Horse wasn’t The Wallflowers’ first album, though people would’ve been forgiven for thinking it was. The group’s self-titled 1992 debut had sold poorly enough for Virgin Records to get out of the Jakob Dylan business. In the years that followed, Jakob didn’t act like some entitled heir. He realized the band wasn’t up to snuff, and as he worked to improve his songwriting, lineup changes helped him develop his sound. Dylan ultimately signed to Interscope and linked up with producer T Bone Burnett, who’d played on papa Bob’s mid-’70s Rolling Thunder Revue tour.
Burnett had also helmed August and Everything After, the mega-selling Counting Crows debut containing that aforementioned line about being a Bob wannabe. As with the Crows disc, Burnett gave Bringing Down the Horse a modern Americana sound that was classic yet suited for ’90s radio.
“I wasn’t interested in making a throwback record from the ‘60s or ‘70s,” Jakob told American Songwriter. Singles like “One Headlight” and “6th Avenue Heartache” appealed to everyone from alternative kids to VH1-watching Sheryl Crow fans to older boomers stuck on Springsteen, Petty, and yes, Bob Dylan.
The album produced four hit singles, reached No. 4 on the Billboard 200, and landed Jakob on the cover of Rolling Stone. It was a level of stardom he wouldn’t sustain, but maybe that was for the best. On their four subsequent albums, The Wallflowers have proved a reliable rock ‘n’ roll band still capable of brilliant singles, like 2012’s “Reboot the Mission.” Outside the group, Dylan has released a pair of solo albums and avoided becoming a ’90s nostalgia artist. (The Wallflowers tour this summer with Counting Crows — not Smash Mouth or Sugar Ray.) He’s a genuine talent who took an even bigger risk than Sean or Julian Lennon did. There were four Beatles but only one Bob, and in 1996, a year before Time Out of Mind, the elder Dylan was still going strong.
Imagine if Robert Todd Lincoln, Abe’s only son to reach adulthood, had run for president, won, and done a pretty decent job. That’s Bringing Down the Horse.
Read on for a track-by-track look back.
“One Headlight”: Dylan kicks things off by climbing behind the wheel of a padiddle and cruising bravely into the “maze of ugliness and greed” laid out before him. His speed is steady, like the steely-eyed bass-and-drum groove, and his mood is hopeful, despite all the wreckage in the rearview. The car imagery and overall positive message — “come on try a little / nothing is forever” — give this the feel of a lost Springsteen classic, which might explain why the Boss joined the band for a memorable performance at the 1997 VMAs.
“6th Avenue Heartache”: With guitar work from Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and background vocals from Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz, the album’s debut single is an all-star Americana jam sesh. It’s also a classic NYC tune — the story of Jakob feeling a kinship with a homeless musician. The song has a dreamlike feel, despite its down-home instrumentation and references to real places. By the final verse, the old man has either died or moved on, leaving Dylan to ponder that “black line” etched on every strummer’s soul.
“Bleeders”: A mid-tempo tune with explosive choruses, “Bleeders” reads like what it probably is: a frustrated rocker deciding to redouble his efforts rather than admit defeat. ”I guess I should be ashamed,” he sings. “But I forget to be vain.”
“Three Marlenas”: The chords will sound familiar to fans of The Velvet Underground‘s “Sweet Jane.” The lyrics will ring true to anyone who’s felt like multiple versions of the same person. Dylan introduces a trio of Marlenas: a dye-job redhead living a wild life that somehow pays the bills, a car salesman’s wife wondering whether she can settle, and a dreamer who decides to hit the highway, “Born to Run”-style, and never look back. Whether he’s singing about three people or three sides of the same woman, Dylan can relate. It’s hard to find people you can trust, even when you look in the mirror.
“The Difference”: A real corker from the opening drum roll, the disc’s third single seems to be about people who never grow up. The trajectory — charging verses leading to rolling, rumbling choruses — makes total sense for this set of lyrics. Dylan gets worked up, takes a step back, sees things for what they are, then delivers a terrific line: “The only difference that I see / is you’re exactly the same as you used to be.”
“Invisible City”: Over weary acoustic and pedal-steel guitar, a smoky-voiced Dylan comes to more realizations about his city and social set. Best line: “We’re touching faces in the dark / Feelin’ pretty is so hard.” It’s not so much that L.A. is invisible — it’s that everyone is blind, and it’s tough to tell which horses are worth the chase.
“Laughing Out Loud”: Had this dropped as a single, Dylan might have caught hell for ripping off Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309,” just like Springsteen did with “Radio Nowhere.” No matter: The organ gives it a jolt, and guest backing vocalist Sam Phillips (then T Bone’s wife) adds a taunting edge on the chorus. Whoever wronged Dylan won’t get the best of him.
“Josephine”: It’s the requisite ballad with a girl’s name in the title, and it’s Dylan’s most patient, understated performance on this album. The imagery is simple — “if you let me, I’d make you ribbons from a paper bag” — and so is the message. The narrator has strayed and made mistakes, and he needs Jo’s tangerine kisses to erase the bad taste in his mouth. As it does throughout the album, the B3 organ makes it seems he’s getting nearer to home.
“God Don’t Make Lonely Girls”: The Wallflowers go full “Honky Tonk Woman” on a playful barroom strutter that starts out a bit like Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones.” Dylan, like Duritz before him, is ogling a Spanish dancer, only she’s working at a peep show, not showing her flamenco skills. That doesn’t matter to Jakob — his theology holds that the lord almighty didn’t mean for females to fly solo. It’s the purest-hearted guy at the strip club coming in for the rescue.
“Angel On My Bike”: Having already hit the highway several times on this record, Dylan shakes things up by trading four wheels for two. He also plays a more reckless, freewheeling cat than he has on the previous tracks. This is Dylan the motorcycle rebel, “Elvis in need of repair.” The piano around 2:40 adds a fresh musical touch to this blacktop prayer.
“I Wish I Felt Nothing”: All of the rootsy instrumentation finally yields a country song. The pedal steel makes the track, and the man playing that instrument, Leo LeBlanc, may have inspired the music. Dylan has said he wanted to showcase the Nashville vet, who died soon after the album came out, but that’s not all Jakob is doing here. The song is a final restating of the album’s theme. Try as he may, Dylan can’t divorce himself from the world. No matter what industry shenanigans, insane expectations, and inane questions he’s forced to endure, he still feels something. That’s why he keeps showing up.