Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Saturday, 26 September 2015

31. Oh Mercy (1989)

Last week when I wrote my post on Dylan & The Dead, the weather was cold and grey with nonstop rain.  The following morning as I listened to Oh Mercy for the first time, the sun came bursting out from behind the clouds. Talk about a frickin' metaphor.

Right from the off it's clear that Bob is more engaged than he's been for years.  Urgent opener Political World may be a weak start with it's repetitive Chris Rea chug and vague social commentary, but his singing is much more controlled.  The whine has been tamed, and because he's more closely miked, his delivery is more intimate with no sign of straining.  The addition of a chorus or a middle-eight might have livened it up some, and the lyrics are more Neighbourhood Bully than Masters of War, but to hear Dylan sounding like he gives a shit again is most welcome.

Oh Mercy was recorded in New Orleans and produced by Daniel Lanois, whose success with U2 led to Bono recommending him.  A tight group of musicians who'd recently played on the Lanois-produced Yellow Moon by the Neville Bothers were brought in, marking a big shift away from Bob's two previous studio albums that had consisted of material thrown together from a variety of sessions with dozens of personnel.  This, coupled with Lanois' trademark sound and his quite controlled - some say strict - way of working, led to Dylan's strongest, most cohesive and most satisfying album in a decade; clean yet "swampy", spacious yet submerged, heavy on reverb and light on percussion, with no famous friends, no cover versions, and no bloody backing singers.

Of course none of this means a thing without some decent material, and Bob's songwriting has taken a distinct turn for the better, too.  Where Teardrops Fall opens with some beautiful slide guitar and, oh my gosh, a TUNE!  A simple one, yes, but a pretty country tune.  It's accompanied by Dylan's gruff but tender vocal that's also more clearly enunciated than ever.  Maybe it was the music, maybe I was just having one of those days, but on the first listen I got quite misty-eyed, especially when the sax came in at the end.  At just two and a half minutes it's short but very sweet.

The chiming rock 'n' roll of Everything Is Broken is a list of complaints signalling the author's dismay at the modern world, rhyming "broken" with words like "joking" and "croaking" like only an American can.  The simple riff and propulsive beat are arresting, and there's a glimpse of a different harmonica sound, but as for the subject matter, well, we've been here before and this variant reveals nothing new.

It's the next three songs that for me are the beating heart of Oh Mercy.  Like the first rays of spring after a long, dark winter, it's lovely to hear the emotion returned to Bob's voice on the hymnal Ring Them Bells, which openly references his faith for the first time since the beginning of the decade. Despite the lyrics there's a hopeful quality that comes from both the solemn piano and the cracked beauty of his voice.  The up-tempo live version on Bootleg Series Vol. 8 is also worth a listen.

The Man in the Long Black Coat is a proper old-fashioned ballad of doom, its air of menace and tale of temptation putting me in mind of Nick Cave's murder ballads.  We can even hear the crickets chirping as the demon lover claims his bride, much like we did on Day of the Locusts from New Morning.  Bob delivers the words in groups of mainly three syllables, as Lanios' musical marsh provides a suitably grim backdrop.  It's remarkable that this particular song was written in the studio and then successfully recorded on the first take.

I'd already heard the bittersweet Most of the Time on the soundtrack to High Fidelity, and for me this defiant, weary account of coping with love lost, with its mournful wash of guitars and echoing drums, is the most moving song on Oh Mercy.  As elsewhere, the sympathetic instrumentation allows Dylan's words, here sung in a gentle, weathered croon, to hold the listener's attention.

The following trio of songs are less strong, but thanks to the consistent production they fit well. The piano, bass and acoustic guitar on the introspective What Good Am I? are led by a soft, heartbeat-like thud as Bob questions his own worth.  I'm not at all keen on the rather clunky mis-step Disease of Conceit (worst lyric: Conceit is the disease that the doctors got no cure, They've done a lot of research on it but what it is they're still not sure" - erk!); the far superior outtake Series of Dreams would have been preferable.  The verses of What Was it You Wanted? are separated by some harmonica that sounds very different to Dylan's previous style, so much so that I had to check the credits to see who it was playing.  Like the change in his singing, it displays more control, perhaps another consequence of the producer's discipline.  His faith rears its head again as the betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane is referenced for the first time since Saved.  Shooting Star, addressed to a former lover or perhaps his god - certainly someone to whom he's no longer close - is a beautiful bookend, summing up the combination of cynicism and vulnerability that is Oh Mercy, and the dissatisfaction and resignation of middle age.  

Apparently only recorded at night, the album has a dark, sometimes gothic feel, suffused with melancholy and self-doubt. Daniel Lanois surrounds the songs with a dense, mysterious fog that's able to conceal the shortcomings of the weaker material, making what might have been a middling album into a great one.  He's said that he was going for a "swampy" sound and he achieved it; as well as giving the record a strong identity, it also allows me the pleasure of imagining a quiet, shadowy Louisiana mangrove forest, with Bob as a gnarly old snapping turtle, complaining that the frogs round here don't taste as good as they used to.

But much of the credit also belongs to Dylan.  His ability to write interesting, moving lyrics has returned, as has his knack for a tune.  The level of engagement with his material shines through; he sounds like he cares once more about what he's singing, no longer just going through the motions.  Long may it last.

Tomorrow will be another day
Guess it's too late to say the things to you
That you needed to hear me say
Seen a shooting star tonight
Slip away


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  1. None of what I've read previously has convinced me to seek out the 80s albums. However, I was always under the impression that Oh Mercy was "the return to form", and if you were going to listen to later period Bob then that is the one to go for. I too knew "Most Of The Time" from High Fidelity, but was slightly reticent about exploring the parent album.
    OK, you convinced me and I'm expecting it to thwack on my doorstep in the next couple of days.
    If nothing else, this blog has increased Bob Dylan sales by 1.

  2. Wish I could say your 'long may it last' plea will be fulfilled. Good luck with the next one (though it has its advocates, so you never know...)

  3. Late to these, Mini. Bloody good writing! Now I have to scroll down for a very long time...

    1. Thanks Doc, most kind. Don't get scroll knuckle.

  4. Shall I say this twice? Excellent writing, pretty good album (I'm a Lanois fan but I'm not sure he nailed this one) but next up....oh dear