Oh Mercy (1989)
What an album. After years of slogging through crap, Oh Mercy didn’t even make a blip on the radar of many Dylan fans when it was released, which is a shame because it is his finest album of the 80s. Now the album is usually placed among the best second-tier Dylan albums, even though it probably belongs in the top tier. To make a great album, Dylan took Bono’s advice and hired Daniel Lanois as producer, then opted to record the album in New Orleans backed by many of that city’s musicians, such as Rockin’ Dopsie, Cyril Neville and Willie Green. The result was ethereal, smoky and mesmerizing, and there were enough great leftovers to provide numerous outtakes over the years. This was the first album where it was clear Dylan’s voice had changed, but the music changed to fit it. This music was crafted around Dylan’s older croak, and turns it once again into an instrument.
Part of what allows this album to be so successful is not only the crafting of the sound, but also the thematics. While all of Dylan’s 80s albums have songs that deal with his greatest theme – America – and also with God, greed, etc., they also had songs that didn’t really have any sort of meaning to them. On Oh Mercy, Dylan had songs hearkening back to the best work from all his great periods. “Political World” has all the righteous fury of the songs on The Times They Are A-Changin’. “Most of the Time” would not be thematically out of place on Blood On the Tracks, and an early version was recorded with an arrangement that sounded like it could have come from the New York Sessions recorded for that album. “Ring Them Bells” is one of Dylan’s strongest religious tracks; it is almost a hymn. And even the album’s weakest song – “Disease of Conceit” – manages to tackle issues way beyond the scope of three quarters of what is on the three albums before it.
Best song: Most of the Time – Just heartbreaking. The bass line makes this the best version of this song, which Dylan continued to tinker with. In 1990 it came out as a European single in an almost grunge-rock version that was really hard. It sounded more like Neil Young than Bob Dylan. This version is soft, a whisper, but a powerful whisper. The bass is like a broken heartbeat that will never quite be able to heal itself.
Worst song: Disease of Conceit – The lyrics to this are just cliché, at times bordering on silly. In Chronicles, Dylan’s memoirs, the best part of the book is about the recording of this album and a strange man he meets in the bayou named Sun Pie. In there, though, he talks extensively about writing the lyrics to this song and offers up many verses he wrote but later rejected. They are not only sillier, but they are high school poetry – oh noetry!
Best outtake: Born In Time – This was a close battle with “Dignity,” a film noir detective story set to music where the detective, a Dylan personae, is searching for dignity, which is suspected of murder. It has many great lines, like “someone showed me a picture and I just laughed; Dignity’s never been photographed,” but it doesn’t have the elegance of “Born In Time.” This song was rerecorded for inclusion on Under the Red Sky, but the original is better. Two versions from these sessions have been released, each with a different set of lyrics than the version on Under the Red Sky. The version I prefer, which appeared on the bootleg Deeds of Mercy, has the best set of lyrics of them all.
Notable live version: Ring Them Bells – In 1993, Dylan did a series of concerts at the Supper Club in New York for a live album and concert video that never materialized. I assume he figured he could get more publicity from MTV’s Unplugged series, so when they offered to do an episode on him he dropped this project. That’s a shame because the concerts, as far as I can tell, were rather splendid affairs. This song is hopeful, beautiful and sad. I see ringing them bells as a way of empathizing with pain, and perhaps the most powerful empathy is with those “chosen few who will judge the many when the game is through,” suggesting that those chosen few won’t be the ones who necessarily want to judge, which is a sobering thought I can find a lot of solace in.
Rhymes: plank/bank; microscope/rope (“Political World”); ploughs/vows (“Everything is Broken”); gave/depraved (“Man In the Long Black Coat”); skip/lip (“What Was It You Wanted?”)
Images: “cities of lonesome fear” (“Political World”); “rivers of blindness” (“Where Teardrops Fall”); “broken treaties, broken vows, broken pipes” (“Everything is Broken”); “African trees bent over backward from a hurricane breeze;” “tree trunks uprooted ’neath the high crescent moon” (“Man In the Long Black Coat”)
Axioms: “mercy walks the plank,” “shout God’s name, but you’re never quite sure what it is” (“Political World”); “they’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong” (“Ring Them Bells”); “people don’t live or die; people just float” (“Man In the Long Black Coat”); “If I turn myself off so I can’t hear you cry, what good am I?” (“What Good Am I?”)