Why weren’t The Wallflowers a bigger deal?
In the years since the band’s 1996 breakthrough, Bringing Down the Horse (which turns 25 today), I have pondered this question a lot. By all accounts, this particular band seemed primed for superstardom. Here are just a few of the things they had going in their favor:
- An heir to rock ‘n’ roll royalty? Check, in the form of Jakob Dylan (son of Bob) who fronted the band and served as core songwriter.
- Ace producer in the studio? Check, in the form of T. Bone Burnett, in the midst of a dynamite ‘90s run that included work with everyone from Roy Orbison to Counting Crows to Gillian Welch. (He’d win an Album of the Year Grammy in 2001 for his work on the O’ Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack.)
- Great music videos from game-changing directors? Check, in the form of this innovative clip for “6th Avenue Heartache,” helmed by budding Hollywood auteur David Fincher.
- Endorsements from superstars? Check, in the form of Bruce Springsteen, who shared the stage with the ‘Flowers at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards for a take on their hit “One Headlight.”
The band’s orbit even included future studio session A-listers like Rami Jaffee (keyboardist and organist for the band, now a full-fledged member – and Rock Hall inductee – for the Foo Fighters) and Jay Joyce (who adds guitar on Horse – including that iconic little guitar echo at the start of “One Headlight” – and who would later become the go-to producer for Eric Church and a bunch of other famous Nashville country stars).
It if were possible to “buy stock” in a band – and had I been of stock-buying age when Bringing Down the Horse came out and made The Wallflowers my first-ever favorite band (I was five years old) – I would have bought a lot of stock in these guys. Their songs were catchy enough to land on the radio, but even to my very young years, they sounded sturdier than most of what was on the airwaves. “One Headlight” had a soul-deep sense of yearning to it that felt timeless. “So long ago, I don’t remember when/That’s when they say I lost my only friend” is about as good as opening statements come in pop music. If I’d known anything about rock ‘n’ roll history at the time, I might have connected The Wallflowers to what came before them: the Dylans and Springsteens and Tom Pettys of the world.
25 years later, Dylan, Springsteen, and Petty remain patron saints of rock ‘n’ roll, and lots of bands and artists that sound like The Wallflowers have cult followings of their own – if not outright, full-blown popularity. Dawes are The Wallflowers on a 15-year delay. Eric Church and Jay Joyce regularly cook up concoctions in the studio that aren’t such a far cry from Bringing Down the Horse deep cuts like “God Don’t Make Lonely Girls” and “I Wish I Felt Nothing.” Jason Isbell has become one of the most lionized songwriters of his generation for penning the types of thoughtful anthems that Jakob Dylan was writing in the mid-1990s – with a rock band behind him that sometimes sounds quite a bit like The Wallflowers sounded on their early albums. If you’d transported me from 1997, when “One Headlight” was my favorite song in the world, to right now, with no sense of context for what’s happened in between, I would survey the musical landscape and assume that The Wallflowers were at least beloved Americana elder statesmen, if not arena-filling superstars on the order of their fellow ‘90s alums in the Foo Fighters. My decision to buy metaphorical stock in this band in the late ‘90s would be paying off in spades.
Instead, The Wallflowers at some point became a footnote instead of a pillar. They still have their fans: Bringing Down the Horse remains a largely-admired piece of ‘90s nostalgia, and “One Headlight” and “6th Avenue Heartache” are both karaoke classics and evergreen playlist jams. But many of the people who love those songs and this album lost track of The Wallflowers in the ensuing years, and the band is anything but omnipresent today. In fact, when The Wallflowers announced their new record last month – called Exit Wounds and due out in July – the common reaction on Twitter seemed to be “The Wallflowers are still a thing?!” And people could be forgiven for not knowing: this once-promising rock ‘n’ roll powerhouse hasn’t released an album in the better part of nine years – their last, the Joyce-produced Glad All Over, came out in October 2012 – and Jakob Dylan is the lone remaining original member.
The sidelining of The Wallflowers is, in my mind, one of the great musical tragedies of the past 25 years. Even after their string of five top-40 singles – starting with “One Headlight” and ending with a cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” which appeared on the soundtrack of the 1998 Godzilla film – The Wallflowers continued to make great records. 2000’s Breach and 2006’s Rebel, Sweetheart are especially strong, pairing the band’s rootsy rock sound with an increasingly lyrical approach that belied Jakob Dylan’s famous parentage. But Bringing Down the Horse remains the younger Dylan’s greatest gift to the world: a spectacularly produced, impeccably played set of songs with sharp-as-a-tack hooks and an irresistible summer evening atmosphere that evokes bar bands, block parties, and bonfires.
The four hits – “One Headlight, “6th Avenue Heartache,” “The Difference,” and “Three Marlenas” – are all classic sing-along jams, but it’s the deep cuts that feel like the true revelations of the set a quarter of a century later. “Laughing Out Loud” and “God Don’t Make Lonely Girls” are effortlessly infectious, bearing an innate pop sensibility that most rock bands simply don’t have anymore. “Angel on My Bike” feels massive enough to fill a stadium. “I Wish I Felt Nothing” lilts along with the pedal steel and high lonesome sound of classic country music. And “Josephine” is as close as Jakob gets to writing a song like his dad, about a girl so sweet she must “taste just like sugar and tangerines”; it’s his “Just Like a Woman.”
There are plenty of possible explanations for why The Wallflowers sputtered out when all signs seemed to indicate they were headed toward the stratosphere. The uncharitable take is that they simply stopped writing undeniable songs. To refute that claim, I’ll submit “Sleepwalker,” a song from the band’s next record that carries the same mix of classic rock momentum and expert pop songcraft as the best songs from Horse; it even cracked the Billboard Hot 100. The wildest theory, meanwhile, might be the one floated in the mailbag of sportswriter and podcaster Bill Simmons, where a sports fan argued that Springsteen blew Jakob Dylan off the stage to such a degree at the 1997 VMAs that it sapped the younger rock star of his mojo.
But the most logical explanation has to be timing: Bringing Down the Horse dropped in 1996, right around the time that this variety of classic-leaning, roots-influenced radio rock was starting to fall out of favor. By the time The Wallflowers came back in 2000, with Breach, the music industry was fundamentally different, both in terms of what was popular (boy bands, teen pop, nu metal, and Santana duet albums) and how music functioned as commerce (Napster had largely killed the CD market that allowed Bringing Down the Horse to go quadruple platinum).
Maybe if Breach comes out in 1998 or 1999, The Wallflowers have a fundamentally different career arc. The success of the “Heroes” cover in 1998 showed that there was still demand for what this band was selling, and the momentum from Horse was such that “the next Wallflowers album” had to be an anticipated property in at least some corners of the business. But four years is a long time in the music industry; it’s longer for bands still proving themselves in the wake of their breakthrough albums; and it’s a goddamn eternity when a disruptor like Napster just so happens to tear the rug out from under the industry before you can marshal a comeback. The result of that four-year wait and the industry that left The Wallflowers behind is a legacy that, for many listeners, starts and stops with Bringing Down the Horse. But if you have to hang your legacy on a single album, you can do a hell of a lot worse than this collection of catchy, era-crossing rock songs—most of which, 25 years later, sound like they haven’t aged a day.