BOB DYLAN: OH MERCY (1989)
1) Political World; 2) Where Teardrops Fall; 3) Everything Is Broken; 4) Ring Them Bells; 5) Man In The Long Black Coat; 6) Most Of The Time; 7) What Good Am I; 8) Disease Of Conceit; 9) What Was It You Wanted; 10) Shooting Star.
This album shared pretty much the same fate as the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels, released the same year — when they came out, both seemed like such a breath of fresh air after several disappointments in a row that the critical world went a-droolin'. Later on, as time went by, the Eighties started fading out of sight, and albums such as Voodoo Lounge and Time Out Of Mind began (quite justifiedly) eclipsing their predecessors in terms of depth, melodicity, production, and general adequacy, the 1989 «comebacks» gradually came to be regarded as little more than tepid half-steps on the way to a genuine recovery. For Dylan especially, the shadow of Time, universally hailed as his undisputed «late period masterpiece», has plunged Oh Mercy into nearly complete obscurity: at the very least, few people remember any individual songs as «classics».
But I feel kinda sorry about all this. First of all, Oh Mercy definitely was a comeback album, much more so than Steel Wheels — the latter was more of a «formal» comeback, announcing that the Stones have patched up their differences and got together after a two-year break, but it did not exactly show us a band that was getting back on the right track, since they'd never really left it. Oh Mercy, on the other hand, did give us back our Dylan — after six years of confusion, total uncertainty of where he actually belonged in this new world, occasional gross embarrassments the likes of which he'd never fallen prey to before (such as the disco production of ʽWhen The Night...ʼ), this was the first album where he at least seemed to be back in control, knowing what exactly he was doing and why he was doing it.
Clearly, this could not have happened without falling upon the proper producer — Daniel Lanois, who is responsible for the resuscitation of Bob's late-period career as much as Tom Wilson was responsible for Bob's early sound. It was Lanois who truly introduced Dylan to the good possibilities of the new technological era, showing that the new production standards were not limited to a simple reliance on electronic drums and atmospheric synthesizer backdrops. Instead, you could take real musicians and mix their parts in such a way that would emphasize, colorize, and maybe even «mystify» them, without any dehumanization involved. All of a sudden, the music behind the words began to matter once again, and this, in turn, revitalized the words: after the «anything-goes» approach of Knocked Out Loaded and Down In The Groove, we are suddenly back to a world where words, chords, and moods form a meaningful unity. It's not an artistic paradise, but it is a meaningful unity.
Not a particularly uplifting or optimistic unity, mind you: Oh Mercy opens another period of utter bleakness for Bob, not nearly as deeply personalized as it was on Street Legal, but nowhere near as formulaically Christianized as on Slow Train Coming, either. Renewed interest in making music here corresponds to a renewed feel of disgust for just about everything in sight, be it politics, social relations, personal relations, or even himself. Small wonder that the lead (and only) single from the album was ʽEverything Is Brokenʼ, a song whose lyrics probably did not take more than five minutes to write, as they mostly just list everything that is broken, but whose mood is quite typical of the album — and also reflects Lanois' deep understanding of what sort of sound goes best with these words, as he punctuates each bar with a «breaking» guitar chord. And it is not a deadly depressed song, either: it's got an angry, punkish overtone to it, not coincidentally opening with a rhythm pattern taken directly from ʽBrand New Cadillacʼ.
Grim acoustic riffs, steel guitar stings, and electric howls in the background actually welcome us from the very beginning — this ain't the Traveling Wilburys, folks: this is a ʽPolitical Worldʼ, where paranoid musical sounds are the norm and "you can travel anywhere and hang yourself there / You always got more than enough rope". Together with ʽEverything Is Brokenʼ, these two songs, clumsily and falsely separated by the less interesting country waltz ʽWhere Teardrops Fallʼ, set the basic tone and deliver the basic message of the whole record. Grim, morose, skeptical, but not up to suicidal heights or anything.
Most of the songs that follow are, however, slower, moodier, and folksier/bluesier in nature, marking the transition to a much more retro-oriented sound and reflecting an increased interest in pre-war music. A song like ʽMan In The Long Black Coatʼ, for instance, with the lyrics properly adjusted to reflect the correct time period, could have come from many an old folk singer, except that Lanois also adjusts it for atmosphere (such as adding some cricket effects to go hand in hand with "crickets are chirpin', the water is high", etc.), and puts a tinge of dark mystery all over the place — if the lyrics themselves do not get you a-wonderin' who the "man in the long black coat" that whisked away the protagonist really is, the deep rumbling bass and the «crickets» just might. (Not that there's a lot of wondering to be involved, but still, this is a relatively new twist in Dylan's relations with the Devil, curious enough to have the song covered by an act as unlikely as the reunited Emerson, Lake & Palmer several years later).
It is true, I suppose, that the actual songwriting here is not phenomenal or anything. It'd been a long, long time since Dylan was able to come up with brand new melodic ideas, and his failing voice, now down to just a few miserable shades of color, can no longer grip the listener with odd tone changes — while he still watches his phrasing quite carefully (unlike his live shows), all the phrasing mostly consists of hoarse croaking. But Oh Mercy goes for atmosphere, not hooks. Yes, sometimes it feels like Bob is getting a bit out of focus, but not on stuff like ʽWhat Was It You Wantedʼ, bitter, direct, and featuring some really mean-blown harmonica, or ʽWhat Good Am Iʼ, one of the most self-critical songs he ever wrote.
When the time comes to prune and filter your collection, and weed out all the music that «does not really matter» and leave in music that does, even an album like Empire Burlesque, which has a lot of individual benefits going for it, might have to go eventually — because its individual parts are greater than its cohesive significance, misguided as the whole thing was. Oh Mercy, with its imaginative «deep dark forest»-style production and deeply personal nature, is the opposite: separately, most of the songs are lacking, but together, they form a realistic and credible picture of Bob the artist at the time. You may not want to keep coming back to it any time soon, but that would be no serious reason to deprive it of a thumbs up.
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