Jakob Dylan has explained the title of his second solo album by asserting, “Everything we care about is an extension of women and country…Those are the beginning and ends of all our efforts, either proactive or reactionary.” To liberal ears, Dylan’s invocations of flag and family might sound worryingly like jingoism, softly lit and sepia-toned, but the conservatism that weighs down Women and Country is musical, not political. Dylan clearly set out to cut a classic country album in the tradition of Williams and Cash (and that other famous Dylan), but the end result feels more studied than spirited—somewhat like a poor period film, where the lovingly recreated sets and costumes only seem to highlight the bland performances.
That’s a shame because, even in its blandly nostalgic incarnation, Women ends up being a real treat for audiphiles and Americana enthusiasts. With his widely acclaimed work on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand, producer T-Bone Burnett has already proven that he can turn a production studio into a sonic time machine. Every detail on Women, from the weeping strings of the opening track to the majestic horns and throbbing string bass that make a driving finale of “Standing Eight Count,” comes across with impressive clarity. When Neko Case lends her voice to the elegiac “Holly Rollers for Love,” Burnett exquisitely captures the interplay between her pure soprano and Dylan’s grittier register.
The sad truth is, though, that Dylan’s songs here don’t really merit the gorgeous production job—not anymore than your local newscast deserves to be seen in HD. On representative tracks like “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” and “Everybody’s Hurting,” Dylan gives stoic recitations of his own world-weary observations over static musical backdrops comprised of the usual country/folk accoutrements: forlorn fiddling, plucked bass, and softly punchy snare drums. His vocals are deliberately non-showy (no “Sixth Avenue Heartache” here), and he even knows when to step aside and give his guest musicians some space to spread out. That gesture that would be easier to appreciate if the musical digression were more interesting, but outside the blaring electric guitar that winds its way through “Lend a Hand,” the instrumentation is more or less country-by-rote. The resulting songs are tasteful, beautifully crafted, and almost unexceptionally dull.
Dylan’s lyrics don’t add a lot to the experience, though the faux-folkie dialect that he adopts for “Yonder Comes the Blues” and “They’ve Trapped Us Boys” does contribute to the weird artifice of it all. Women ends up sounding like someone’s idea for a museum showcase about country music much more so than a contribution to a living musical tradition. As with his obtuse statements about the values of “women and country,” Dylan’s songwriting is compromised of a muddy conventionalism that can’t tell when the universal passes into the generic, or the iconic into the cliché.