Bob Dylan: Oh Mercy – [Record 168]
Oh Mercy is the twenty-sixth studio album by American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, released on September 18, 1989 by Columbia Records. Produced by Daniel Lanois, it was hailed by critics as a triumph for Dylan, after a string of weaker-reviewed albums. Oh Mercy gave Dylan his best chart showing in years reaching #30 on the Billboard charts in the United States and #6 in the UK.
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.
Songs: The recording of the album is described by Bob Dylan in his book “Chronicles Volume One”. The album opens with “Political World”, a song that has been described[by whom?] as a “catalog of troubles…almost an update on ‘With God On Our Side.'” A cranky tirade against the modern world, it begins with the verse, “We live in a political world/Love don’t have any place/We live in a time where men commit crime/And crime don’t have a face”, to which on-line blogger Thomas Ward commented, “… which leaves one to argue, which age does this not apply to?”
In regard to “Everything Is Broken”, Dylan wrote, “Danny didn’t have to swamp it up too much, it was already swamped up pretty good when it came to him. Critics usually didn’t like a song like this coming out of me because it didn’t seem to be autobiographical. Maybe not, but the stuff I write does come from an autobiographical place.” A propulsive, riff-driven number, it was the first single issued from Oh Mercy.
“Ring Them Bells” is one of the more celebrated tracks on Oh Mercy, and also where Lanois’ production is at its most subtle and restrained. The song features some spiritual overtones, invoking St. Peter, St. Catherine and a “Sweet Martha” who may or may not be the biblical Martha. It opens with the verse, “Ring them bells ye heathen/From the city that dreams/Ring them bells from the sanctuaries/Cross the valleys and streams.”
“Ring Them Bells” was also one of two songs that was released with its live vocals intact. The other song was “Man in the Long Black Coat”, sequenced right after “Ring Them Bells”.
“One of my favorites is ‘Man in the Long Black Coat,’ which was written in the studio, and recorded in one take”, recalls Lanois. Praised by Heylin as a “powerful reinterpretation of The Daemon Lover motif”, “Man in the Long Black Coat” also contains some prominent use of apocalyptic imagery, evoking a place where the “water is high” and “tree trunks uprooted”. In his own assessment of “Man in the Long Black Coat”, Dylan wrote that “in some kind of weird way, I thought of it as my ‘I Walk the Line,’ a song I’d always considered to be up there at the top, one of the most mysterious and revolutionary of all time, a song that makes an attack on your most vulnerable spots, sharp words from a master”.
The second half of Oh Mercy is notable for its sustained moodiness and resignation, often in relation to romantic dissolution. This is immediately apparent on the atmospheric “Most of the Time”, which features the richest production on the album. Described as “magisterial” by Allan Jones of Melody Maker, the narrator in “Most of the Time” sings of an estranged lover whom the narrator can’t quite shake from his memories. The song addresses an irreconcilable, personal relationship, and this theme would continue through “What Good Am I?”, a frank look at the narrator’s moral worth, and “What Was It You Wanted”
Though he is still uncertain of its origins, in his autobiography Dylan does write that “Disease of Conceit” may have been inspired by the defrocking of Jimmy Swaggart. Lou Reed selected this song as one of his ‘picks of 1989’.
The album closes with “Shooting Star”, a wistful ballad of remembrance with possible allusions to the loss of Dylan’s Christian faith. Dylan appears to address Christ: “Seen a shooting star tonight and I thought of me/If I was still the same/If I ever became what you wanted me to be”. The next line, “Did I ever miss the mark or overstep the line that only you could see” makes an apparent reference to Joseph Addison Alexander’s poem “There is a line by us unseen/That crosses every path/The hidden boundary between/God’s patience and His wrath.”. The words occasionally evoke some portentous imagery (“the last fire truck from hell goes rollin’ by”), but it ends the album on a soft, romantic note.
The cover: The photo on the cover of the album shows a mural that Dylan came across on a wall of a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen on 9th Avenue and 53rd Street. The artist, Trotsky, who created the image of two people dancing was located (he lived near the mural) and permission was granted.
Outtakes: When Rolling Stone magazine wrote “it would be unfair to compare Oh Mercy to Dylan’s landmark Sixties recordings”, author Clinton Heylin countered this remark, arguing that the Oh Mercy sessions had the songs to compete with Dylan’s most celebrated work. A few of these songs were not issued on the album, but they soon found their way into private circulation where they acquired a strong reputation among critics and collectors.
One of Dylan’s most ambitious compositions, “Series of Dreams” is given a tumultuous production from Daniel Lanois. The lyrics are fairly straightforward, giving a literal description of the turmoil encountered by the narrator during a “series of dreams.” However, the descriptions quickly unfold into a set of highly evocative verses.
During a Sound Opinions interview broadcast on Chicago FM radio,[when?] Lanois told Chicago Tribune critic Greg Kot that “Series of Dreams” was his pick for the opening track, but ultimately, the final decision was Dylan’s. Music critic Tim Riley would echo these sentiments, writing that “‘Series of Dreams’ should have been the working title song to Oh Mercy, not a leftover pendant.”
Another outtake, “Dignity”, was one of the first songs written for Oh Mercy. Dylan viewed “Dignity” as a strong contender for the album, and an extensive amount of work was done on it. However, Dylan was dissatisfied with the recorded results, resulting in his decision to omit it.
The two most celebrated outtakes from Oh Mercy’s sessions, Dylan would not only perform “Dignity” and “Series of Dreams” live, he would eventually release them. “Series of Dreams” was the final track on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991, and it was later included on 1994’s Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume 3. “Dignity” was performed live during a 1994 appearance on MTV Unplugged, and the same performance was later issued on the accompanying album. A remixed version of “Dignity” featuring new overdubs was released on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume 3, while the original Lanois production would not see release until the soundtrack album of the television show, Touched by an Angel.
Listed as “Broken Days/Three of Us” on the track sheets, the original version of “Everything Is Broken” was briefly issued on-line as an exclusive download on Apple Computer’s iTunes music store. In 2008, it was remastered from a better source and reissued on The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs. Described by Heylin as an “evocation of a fragmented relationship”, the lyrics were later rewritten and overdubbed with new vocals and an additional guitar part.
Two more outtakes, “Born In Time” and “God Knows”, were set aside and later re-written and re-recorded for Dylan’s next album, Under the Red Sky. Versions of both songs from the Oh Mercy sessions were also included on The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs. “The Oh Mercy outtake of ‘Born In Time’ was one of those Dylan performances that so surrendered itself to the moment that to decry the lyrical slips would be to mock sincerity itself”, wrote author Clinton Heylin.
Critical and Commercial Response: After disappointing sales with Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove, Oh Mercy was hailed as a comeback in a year when several long-time veterans were releasing their own ‘comeback’ albums, including Paul McCartney with Flowers In The Dirt, The Rolling Stones with Steel Wheels, Neil Young with Freedom, Tom Petty with Full Moon Fever, Bonnie Raitt with Nick of Time, and Lou Reed with New York. Consensus was strong enough to place Oh Mercy at #15 in The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Critics Poll for 1989. Also in 1989, Oh Mercy was ranked #44 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest albums of the 1980s.
Oh Mercy’s production was unlike anything ever released on a Dylan record, and it drew praise from a majority of critics. Robert Christgau of The Village Voice wrote, “Daniel Lanois’s understated care and easy beat suit [Dylan’s] casual ways, and three or four songs might sound like something late at night on the radio, or after the great flood. All are modest and tuneful enough to make you forgive ‘Disease of Conceit,’ which is neither.”
But as Heylin notes, “Though many a critic who had despaired at the sound of Dylan’s more recent albums enthused about the sound on Oh Mercy, it was evident that rock music’s foremost lyric writer had also rediscovered his previous flair with words.”
Bill Wyman even went so far as to criticize the production in praising the songs. “Taken over by Daniel Lanois, master of a shimmering and distinctive electronically processed guitar sound…[the album] is overdone”, writes Wyman. “It’s irritating to hear Dylan’s songs so manipulated, but there are sufficient nice tracks—”Most of the Time”, “Shooting Star”, both simple and direct, among them—to make this by far the most coherent and listenable collection of his own songs Dylan has released since Desire.”
Though it did not enter Billboard’s Top 20, Oh Mercy remained a consistent seller, enough to be considered a modest commercial success.
By the end of the year, Dylan would begin planning his next album, to be produced by Don and David Was of Was (Not Was), using the Oh Mercy outtake “God Knows” as a starting point.
To celebrate the album’s 20th anniversary, Montague Street Journal: The Art of Bob Dylan dedicated roughly half of its debut issue (published in 2009) to a roundtable discussion on Oh Mercy.
In 2006, Q magazine placed the album at #33 in its list of “40 Best Albums of the ’80s”. During that same year, “Political World” appeared in the film Man of the Year.