CK Retro Review: Oh Mercy by Bob Dylan

This was more like it. 1989’s Oh Mercy was rightly praised upon its release and has held up well over time; if anything, the songs sound even better now. Part of that is due to the sharp production work of Daniel Lanois, who guided Dylan toward his better instincts in the studio and added atmosphere and spirit to the recordings. Most of the credit goes to Bob though, who wrote his strongest collection of material in a decade. Here is a song-by-song review.

TWO STARS

10. “What Was It You Wanted”- Some folks might find profundity in Dylan’s ceaseless questions here, but the song suggests a whole lot more than it says, making it feel like we listeners have to do all the work. It’s also one of the few tracks on the album that’s a bit nondescript musically.

THREE STARS

9. “Where Teardrops Fall”- Lanois’ lap steel and the sax solo at song’s end give this ballad a little bit of flavor, as does Dylan’s solid vocal effort. The song is relatively short and moves on its way before it makes too much of a dent, but it sounds sweet and inviting while it’s here.

8. “What Good Am I?”- Imagine Dylan as a prosecutor cross-examining himself and you get a sense of where this interesting, moody track is at. The spare instrumentation really puts the spotlight on Bob’s vulnerable vocals, as he asks questions to which he seems desperately interested in the answers. A rock star examining his conscience and self-worth would be a recipe for an eye-rolling disaster in lesser hands, but Dylan makes it relatable, piercingly so.

FOUR STARS

7. “Everything Is Broken”- The whole universe might indeed be fractured in Dylan’s unforgiving tableau, but at least the Oh Mercy band has our backs with a groove that will make us forget, for the duration of the song anyway, that we’re all doomed. Lyrics like these can seem like a simple exercise in wordplay, until one of Bob’s phrases stuns you with its sneaky potency. For example, “People bending broken rules” is a pretty sharp dissection of the mankind’s inherent ruthlessness, while “Broken voices on broken phones” is a harrowing image of a merciless world.

6. “Disease Of Conceit”- Dylan doesn’t get into what his definition of conceit is, leaving us to come up with our own interpretation of the disease. He simply demonstrates the insidious tactics that the disease uses to get inside us and its devastating effects once it gets there. He never castigates those who are suffering from it; he feels for them. That feeling is amped up by the soulful and sad melody and the restrained musical backing. The inherent tenderness of the performance helps to balance out any vagueness in the lyrics.

5. “Political World”- Just two lines into the first song on the album and you could see that Bob was no longer joshing around: “We live in a political world/Love don’t have any place.” As relentless about truth-telling as “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding”), “Political World” also benefits from a tense but propulsive arrangement. Dylan doesn’t sugarcoat the nastiness of it all; after all, if you know what’s coming, you can prepare for it or at least brace yourself for the impact. The word “political” takes on all kinds of connotations and permutations in Bob’s rendering, to the point where the word no longer has anything to do with people running for office. It’s simply another way to say inhumane.

4. “Man In The Long Black Coat”- One of Lanois’ finest productions, evoking all of the menace and mystery of Dylan’s lyrics. So what if the story of the darkly charismatic stranger sweeping away the innocent girl has been told a million times. Dylan is just using it as a prop to delve deep into human nature’s propensity for self-destruction, just as potent in its way as the hurricane uprooting tree trunks in the song’s sultry setting. “But people don’t live or die, people just float,” Bob sings in an ominously deep voice, suggesting that the titular character is just a manifestation of fate and its ability to swallow up helpless mortals. It’s a suspenseful, riveting song.

FIVE STARS

3. “Shooting Star”- Some folks find religious overtones in this lovely closer, but I’ve always thought that Dylan was using the sly Biblical references here as a diversionary tactic. This seems like a tender send-off to a failed relationship, which would be in keeping with other closing tracks from throughout Bob’s career. Lanois puts that trademark shimmer over the proceedings, lending Dylan’s heartbroken ruminations a fragile glow. The narrator can look at the sky and find perspective in spectral wonders, but that’s not going to bring his love back to his lonely, terrestrial plane.

2. “Most Of The Time”- Again, Lanois is at the top of his game here, creating catchy hooks from surprising places, like the little bass riff in between each verse or the echo effect on the drums. Dylan, meanwhile, provides a pitch-perfect vocal performance for his subject matter, bravely trying to get through the lies he’s telling himself but ultimately betrayed by a catch in his voice when he comes to the hardest parts. “Most Of The Time” is one of those songs that hits home because so many of us have lived through a similar period where any false step can tear down the floodgates and bring back the pain of a recently failed romance. We just needed our poet laureate to articulate it for us.

1. “Ring Them Bells”- It’s interesting that the further that Dylan got away from the heart of his Born-Again period, the better his spiritual songs became. “Ring Them Bells” isn’t really asking for help from above anyway; it simply posits that all of humanity is connected in joy and sorrow, a realization that anyone who hears the bells has to make. The mighty empathy displayed for those suffering is reminiscent of another Dylan bells song, “Chimes Of Freedom.” Lanois wisely stays out of the way other than a few subtle touches, letting Bob melt hearts with his piano and vocal performance. It’ll give you chills every time.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For a more in-depth look at the songs of Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, available at all major online booksellers.)

http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0810888238

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10 Comments on “CK Retro Review: Oh Mercy by Bob Dylan”

  1. Bob says:

    The late great Christopher Hitchens wrote wonderfully about the ‘vertiginous’ feelings expressed in the wonderful ‘Most of the Time’ ( marvelous version released in the Bootleg series, of course – could almost have come from ‘Blood on the Tracks’ sessions) – in his somewhat dismissive review of Ricks’ book (He’s certainly dismissive of Rick’s analysis of the song.)…
    Mostly agree, as usual, tho’ think you’re too kind to ‘Everything is Broken’!And I love the echoes of/allusions to Blake’s ‘Songs’ in ‘Ring Them bells’.

  2. Bob says:

    Reply to myself – Illiterate ‘Rick’s’ ! And ‘Ring Them Bells’.

  3. JS says:

    It certainly was a welcome return to form, but again we learn not too long after what a better record it could’ve been with the release of Series of Dreams and Dignity. I would’ve ditched Disease of Conceit for either of these two, though I do prefer the Dignity mix from G. Hits Vol. 3 (love that banjo). Born In Time also sounded great from these sessions, nice to have it offcially on Under the Red Sky, but not sure he improved upon it.

    • Jacek says:

      This isn’t meant to pick on you in particular, JS; just a good place to note that I’m confused by the general agreement that Oh Mercy would be an improved album with Series of Dreams and Dignity. I don’t think either of them would fit! Series of Dreams certainly not, with its big bright ’80s bluster (Lanois was right to suggest as much to Dylan, even if he regretted it later), and Dignity too, however delightful a song, strikes me as too jaunty to sit well here. The two upbeat songs that *did* make it are both rather sinister, which mood nicely complements Oh Mercy’s pervading sadness and all the shadows in the corners. Born in Time could’ve worked, but the only place I think it (as another slow love ballad) would be comfortable is as Track 2… but Where Teardrops Fall already does that job perfectly!

      I don’t sympathize with but also don’t care too much about the prevalent complaints about Shot of Love’s sequencing since that album is something of a grab-bag anyway, as evidenced by the later addition of Groom. I agree that Infidels could’ve been much better, although I think the rhythm section is a guiltier culprit than the choice of songs. But the outcry over Oh Mercy’s outtakes I simply don’t understand! Where is people’s feeling for the album form? Give me a cohesive record with a strong mood and flow anytime over a disjointed one, even if the song content on the latter is a little better (though I don’t think that would be the case here either, but that’s more subjective territory).

      Oh Mercy’s strongest attribute in my mind, after just how richly melodic it is (thanks Dan!), is that it’s got one of the strongest, best-established-&-developed-&-sustained moods of any Dylan record. Having Series of Dreams and Dignity appear instead of any two of the present tracks would’ve gone a long way toward undermining that aspect of the album’s excellence.

      There’s so much talk of the post-’70s Dylan becoming a poor judge of his own work, in choosing what to and what not to release, but so far all I can see is someone whose sense for what makes an *album*—as opposed to a collection of songs—has always been superb.

      • hans altena says:

        Spot on Jacek, and I declare myself guilty of the crime of playing imaginary producer, where since Love and Theft the point is made more than clear: Dylan is his own best producer, would a painter accept meddling with his painting? The man is an artist, and yes, in spite of his little respect for the studio and his believe that an album is just a moment in time, he always displayed a big sense for the feeling of a whole record, its thematic unity, ready to discard a brilliant song if need be. Still, many of his decisions in the eigthies have been hampered by the input of another producer and his inability to deal with the modern cold technical approach in those days, while the long process of recording with different units at diverse places, instead of going into it with a fixed band for some days caused him sometimes to lose interest in or forget about a good one more than once. That’s why sometimes I feel tempted to dream about my ideal sequence. But not here, even though I am not very impressed by the simple rocker Everything is Broken, though it picks up where the incisive Political World left of and indeed contibutes to the dark atmosphere of Oh Mercy allright, so it has its function. The lyrically sugardrippy Where Teardrops fall would have been filler were it not for the mystery of everything falling in its right place, you can hear the magic involved, something Dylan wrote about himself, listen to that saxaphone bursting up out of the swamp of sound!. Sure Kid, it is on Oh Mercy that Dylan found his real Gospel stance, dealing with the human and holy in the same time… and it all improves with the ages, an album thaty sinks in deeper and deeper with its deceptively sober lyrics and ghostly music… What Was It You Wanted has been described by Joan, and the Queen knew this by experience, as a perfect and hilarious yet deeply cutting description of how Bob could react on someone interfering with the wrong imposing questions, and is thus interlocked with the equally superb What Good Am I, where the right questions are asked about one self. This unit is introduced with the classic Most of the Time. Disease of Conceit, which plods on a bit when you concern the repetitive nature of its lyrics that nonetheless betray a razorsharpe wisdom, exemplified with the guitarsolo that dissects the heart of any listener I guess, helps this couple of songs become a stunning symphony in the vein of what happens on side two of the Beatles Abbey Road. There it is announced by the sweet Here comes the Sun. here the beauty is bookended by the heartbreaking Shooting Star. Oh Mercy is fully accomplished, and Man in the Long Black Coat (more than just a repeat of the old theme of the stranger, just ponder over the mystery who is meant by that man, death, devil or some merciless God, and what is the fate of the woman that got lost and to whom the teller of the tale could not give what was needed, and take note of one of the verse about people not dying but just floating, it touches in one sentence on what the whole It’s Allright Ma I Am Only Bleeding paints in so many outrageous images) is its crowning jewel.

  4. Jacek says:

    I’m not sure it’s entirely possible to divorce Bob’s personal beliefs from Ring Them Bells what with “so all the world will know that God is one.” Incidentally, am I wrong to observe that the song seems to have risen in your estimation? I didn’t know Oh Mercy yet then (or even two weeks ago) so I wasn’t paying as close attention, but I remember Most of the Time having the highest placement. Well, no matter: the book will tell all!

  5. Shabtai says:

    I am confused with all the posts trying to “improve” and criticize Dylan songs selection and trying to play being Dylan producer on each album.
    Given the album production to them, Dylan albums would have been totally different and much better.
    It reminds me of a true story of an 80 years old father of my friend who started to paint. One day he came to his son and said –”I painted Van gogh Sunflower and you know son what happened – mine came out much better than his”.
    I totally agree with Jacek .
    Dylan songs selection strategy is to keep the albums cohesiveness, flow and concept, and not necessarily putting the “best” songs available in order to gain more public appreciation

  6. JS says:

    Point taken. I’ve just always felt (even in the years before Series and Dignity were released) that Disease of Conceit stood out as a weak song on an otherwise excellent album. It does fit better sonically, but ultimately prevents Oh Mercy from being fully realized, to my ears.

  7. Shabtai says:

    Giving two stars to ” What was it that you wanted” is missing badly the song’s point.
    It is an original, brilliant, sarcastic,cynical, humoristic song , which makes me laugh with every listen.
    CK , being familiar with a large portion of the catalog of popular music , please find another parallel of handling the “trivial” scenario of a nagging spouse (usually wife).

    • countdownkid says:

      I get that interpretation, but I just feel like you have to work for it a bit too hard as a listener to get there. The song doesn’t make the kind of visceral impact, for me anyway, that the best of Bob does.

      Off the top of my head though, how about “Wonderful Tonight?” Supposedly Clapton was frustrated with his wife’s constant questions about how she looked as they prepared to go out and turned it into a song that is played at weddings.


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