On a whim over the weekend, I decided to listen to the Wallflowers’ Breach. In the process, I rediscovered something that I already knew: it’s a damn fine album; probably their best. Sure, there are folks who prefer Bringing Down the Horse, what with “One Headlight” and “6th Avenue Heartache,” but song for song, nothing beats Breach.
Let’s get this out of the way first: “Sleepwalker” is probably their best song. Like, in their entire catalog. Yeah, they’ve got plenty of other great songs (the aforementioned “One Headlight” and “6th Avenue Heartache,” for instance), but nothing that really reaches the level of “Sleepwalker.” If we look at the continuum of Wallflowers albums — from their trying too hard to sound like Bob Dylan debut to their trying too hard to sound like the Clash Glad All Over — Breach is the album where Jakob Dylan finally becomes comfortable in his own skin and with his status as the son of one of the most famous singer/songwriters in music history. Everything about the album just clicks in a way they hadn’t before (and really haven’t since). Rami Jaffee’s keyboards are perfect, guitarist Michael Ward plays some of the best work of his career, and Dylan’s lyrics are both reminiscent of his father’s work and wholly his own.
Song by song, this is the strongest writing in the band’s catalog. Opener “Letters from the Wasteland” sets the tone: the keyboards are foreboding, as are Dylan’s lyrics. He sings of abandonment and isolation, of “Slow danc[ing] to this romance on [his] own.” From there, the band transitions into “Hand Me Down,” which could’ve been vintage Bob Dylan.
Then comes “Sleepwalker.” The minor-key, up-tempo number feels foreboding, right up until the song enters the chorus and Dylan’s vocals are accentuated with poppy hand claps. Then everything takes a turn for the worst in the bridge: “I’m in your movie and everyone looks sad/But I can hear you, your voice, the laughtrack/But you never saw my best scene/The one where I sleep/Sleepwalk into your dreams.” It’s a killer bit of lyrical genius, the sort of thing most musicians would kill to have written. And it’s not even the best bit of that particular song. Dylan is firing on all cylinders here, and the band rises to meet him.
From there, the album tracks are just as solid. “I’ve Been Delivered” is full of clever wordplay and jaunty, keyboard-driven instrumentation. “Witness” is a slow, dirge-like song that sounds — again — like vintage Bob Dylan, with the addition of excellent horns. “Some Flowers Bloom Dead” is probably the best album track the Wallflowers have ever released, with pitch-perfect guitar, keyboards, and rhythm section combining with Dylan’s vocals to carry the song forward and make you want to immediately restart the song and hear it again.
Following “Some Flowers Bloom Dead” are a pair of slower, more stripped down songs: “Mourning Train” and “Up From Under.” Both are atypical of the album, featuring pared down instrumentation (especially “Up From Under,” which is almost entirely acoustic guitar and strings) and thoughtful, introspective lyrics. From there, things pick up a bit once more for “Murder 101,” a bouncy tune about learning how to kill people.
The final two songs share some thematic elements. “Birdcage” features some of the best guitar work of the album, and it’s a damn shame the song fades out just as Michael Ward really gets going. It’s a slow, thoughtful song, meditative and deliberate. And it’s followed by “Baby Bird,” a hidden track that features plinky toy piano and a plea for the baby bird to “come back home.” It’s a beautiful, poignant way to end the album, and a perfect final track.
The Wallflowers are one of my favorite bands. I wish they’d put out music more often (their last album came out in 2012. Two thousand twelve! That’s too damn long for more music from these guys). They’re put out decent albums since then (aside from the clunker that was Red Letter Days), but nothing has come close to reaching the heights of Breach.