There are a number of problems with Dylan's first potentially post-Wallflowers release (it's hard to ascertain the exact status of the band), but none of them can be tied to Rubin's production. To his credit, Rubin captures Dylan's intimate, finger-picked folk so well that it often sounds like he could be playing in your living room (albeit a living room with great acoustics). Instead it is Dylan's lack of varied songwriting that makes Seeing Things as dry as a pack of saltines. The album's press release describes it as "raw and dynamic." If only that were so. Drawing inspiration from the likes of Robert Johnson, Neil Young, and his iconic old man, Dylan doesn't so much dispel his reputation as a gifted and articulate songwriter as he simply fails to achieve the visceral impact of his influences. His plaintive rasp is tailor-made for the album's soft, spare arrangements, but on a number of tracks the coupling of his just-rolled-out-of-bed delivery with the album's low-key sonic palette makes for a somnolent listening experience. It's ironic that the album is being released through a deal with Starbucks given that Dylan sounds like he could use a few shots of espresso.
Overall the album suffers from sameness, but it does offer a couple of captivating folk gems that excel at combining simple but engaging melodies with reflective and evocative lyrics. Whether it's the agrarian metaphor that carries "Will It Grow" - "My forefathers they worked this land/ And I was schooled in the tyranny of nature's plans" - or the rich imagery of "Valley of the Low Sun" - "It's boom, boom thunder and no sleep coming/ Out mining the slippery world/ Of snow-covered beaches, junkyards of diesel/ And bombers named after girls" - Dylan knows how to turn a memorable phrase. (Is wordplay passed down genetically?) On "Valley of the Low Sun," along with the beautiful melancholy of "War Is Kind" and the deadpan "Evil Is Well," Dylan offers his musings on the zeitgeist, wisely eschewing ham-fisted political and social commentary in favor of poetic, impressionistic portraits of the world. His introspective work retains the same intriguing ambiguity as his worldview. On the album's closer, "This End of the Telescope," Dylan sings: "Years of progress digging the sand/ Companions we made didn't last/ Now lousy lovers do well with their hands/ But I'll reach you like nobody can."
It's unclear whether Dylan's foray into austere folk will mark an extended change of musical direction or just a respite from his Americana-rock roots. In delving in headfirst into the singer-songwriter genre, he has retained his poetic wit but sacrificed much of the intensity of his best Wallflowers' work. There are pleasant moments, but by any measure Seeing Things as a whole is rather bland and featureless.