Monday, October 5, 2009

Bob Dylan 34: Oh Mercy

Wonder of wonders, and in a massive reward for long-suffering fans, a new Bob Dylan album appeared that most agreed this was more like it. Oh Mercy—the title, perhaps, a tribute to the recently departed Roy Orbison?—was produced by Daniel Lanois, fresh off his success with U2, Peter Gabriel and Robbie Robertson. His “swampy” approach to the sound complements the lyrics, which travel throughout between introspective and foreboding. The atmosphere is also perfect match for Bob’s voice, thankfully simplified and melodic without straining. The performances are simple, with a lot of emphasis on texture; he also plays a lot of piano for the first time since New Morning.
Perhaps it’s because the previous albums had been so spotty, these songs are very strong and durable. “Political World” fades in with the Lanois sound, and kicks in with a nasty vocal. There are few one-chord songs that make it, and this one does. “Where Teardrops Fall” picks up the pace a bit, with an influence of the town where it was recorded. “Everything Is Broken” takes an old Creedence riff and strangles it, underneath a near litany of things that are simply broken. “Ring Them Bells” takes the tempo down, where the album will stay. This wouldn’t have been out of place on the so-called Christian albums, and that’s meant in a good way. And whoever the “Man In The Long Black Coat” is, he’s still a pretty spooky character.
“Most Of The Time” makes good on the promise of all his recent songs of heartbreak and loneliness. “What Good Am I?” is a wonderful piece of soul-searching, followed by the sermonizing of “Disease Of Conceit”. These are very gentle songs, and truly invite the ears to listen as closely as possible. But things turn around for “What Was It You Wanted”, an incredible one-fingered salute to his fans, then “Shooting Star” delivers another great closer in the tradition of “Restless Farewell”, “Dark Eyes” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”.
If those descriptions seem too brief, so be it. 1989 saw a lot of established artists return to form after pissing away most of the decade. Oh Mercy nicely followed the surprise of the Wilburys, and it was reassuring to hear Bob still so capable of something truly marvelous. We could even overlook the damp shirtless photo on the back cover.

Bob Dylan Oh Mercy (1989)—4


  1. I always liked that back cover pic of Bob all wet picking his teeth. It reminds me of summers spent at the picnic table

  2. It's impossible for me to say which is my favorite Dylan album but "Oh Mercy" is definitely one of them. I especially like "Disease Of Conceit" and "What Good Am I" for their introspection.