CK Retro Review: Oh Mercy by Bob DylanPosted: July 8, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)