In 1989 Bob Dylan appeared to be a busted flush, the God bothering had faded and the glory decades were long gone but with Daniel Lanois at the helm ‘Oh Mercy’ smashed any preconceptions of creative malaise and delivered his most vital work for years. Just as Neil Young was staging a comeback so too was Bob. The old guard reminding everyone what songwriting should be and what it could deliver.
Opening with ‘Political World’ Bob’s voice was rougher than ever but lyrically fiercer…..”We live in a political world Where peace is not welcome at all. It’s turned away from the door to wander some more. Or put up against the wall” All plucked dobro and skittering guitar with a rockabilly shuffle on the drums it was a sublime opener busting down the doors to the rest of the treatise. ‘Where Teardrops Fall’ is a delightful pastiche/tribute to a waltz time 50s ballad beloved of the crooners Bob champions on his radio shows. Lanois keeps the vocals upfront but the sax solo that ends the song is perfection. ‘Everything is Broken’ again, has its roots in a swamp rockabilly style, reverb guitar and trebly solos, a solid backbeat holds up the narrative as Bob sings about everything he considers broken from relationships to global politics. And this is political album both personal and geo. ‘Ring them Bells‘ is a piano-led ballad that lets Bob pour emotion into his wracked voice in a way that hadn’t really been heard since ‘Blood on the Tracks’. It’s a hymn really, and sounds even more like it now 33 years later. “Who will judge the many when the game is through Ring them bells for the time that flies For the child that cries When the innocence dies”
Famously covered by Mark Lanegan ‘The Man in The Long Black Coat’ shows off the synchronicity between Dylan and Lanois as production meets mood meets lyricism and musicality. Crickets chirruping, delicate piano fills, doom-laden lyrics and delivery, a masterclass on song construction and delivery as the strings support the song to its conclusion. ‘Most of the Time’ is the emotional heart of the album. A treatise on the emotional fallout from a relationship, recovery and then the inevitable sense of loss on a constant loop. Bob’s voice is more pained than ever, coated with longing and grief as the musical bed is filled with reverb and feedback. ‘What Good Am I?’ returns to the hymnal feel of ‘Ring them Bells’ this time to a guitar setting rather than piano with Bob seeking a sense of place in a relationship and his dealings with someone close. A stately piano introduces the most lacerating lyric on the album. There’s an almost gospel feel to song as if Bob was on a pulpit in the Deep South “There’s a whole lot of people dying tonight from the disease of conceit, Whole lot of people crying tonight from the disease of conceit, Comes right out of nowhere and you’re down for the count, From the outside world the pressure will mount, Turn you into a piece of meat, The disease of conceit” By the time the angelic guitar solo comes you’re reeling. ‘What Was It You Wanted’ returns to the spacey, dobro-laden Lanois signature, all spare lyrics and hollow harmonica wailing at the world. And the album finishes with another hymnal ‘Shooting Star’, a processional paced paean to love and the emotions it inspires.
For many ‘Oh Mercy’ was a gateway drug to both Dylan and the genre of americana. It is a genuine classic album that stands up to repeated listens. It is rarely out of my top fifty albums of all time.