Friday, June 24, 2016

Oh Mercy - Late Summer 1989

Released September 18, 1989

(From the Journal of Danny)

Late '89, another new Dylan album out only this one had a buzz surrounding it, different from his other recent stuff. Not a redux of the 60s shtick either, hints of a new path forward. I bought the cassette at Encore Records and played it on my stereo three straight times in a dark room in the middle of the afternoon.  I knew a few things about Dylan's new producer, the Canadian Daniel Lanois, young, brash, prodigy not intimidated by anyone, not above pushing Dylan around if the situation called for it. I imagined knife fights in the studio. With no one around in the broken down house, occupied by various other out of grad school malcontents, I put the speakers on full blast. No air conditioning either, windows open with no breeze on a seething Ohio summer afternoon. Rarely saw my old friends those days, still thought of them though. "Political World" came on and I understood what the critics were saying, a song from the swamps with all sorts of chaos in the mix. Sounded as if Dylan took all the frustrations of the 80s and exorcised them in one song. 1989. CEOs walking around like kings. Just what the decade needed, a misanthropic rant. All a stacked deck.  Right on; right on. "Where Teardrops Fall" hints of old jukeboxes, hints of lost love. "Ring Them Bells" could be a sermon from a disgraced preacher, like Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath or a jilted convert. Once the exuberance of being born again fades away- I wonder what happens?  Old vices return along with new temptations of every salacious variety.  But the old time faith (the only faith with meaning) never vanishes either, it stays there, and crops up on songs like this. Staring at the unremarkable clutter of my half-empty room made "Everything is Broken" sounds all too appropriate for my less than minor occasion. "Man in the Long Black Coat" forces you to watch evil triumph and renders you powerless. Keen observers learn to accept such unique pain, grapple with it, and maybe learn something, paying/praying as they go. Where better place to record this album than New Orleans?! A special place, my favorite section in On the Road took place there, the part I reread anyway. A new art for the lost pilgrims. Flip to side 2. "Most of the Time" levels you, for we are no longer the observer but the one on the receiving end. The lyrics were simple, direct, the bass lines luminous. Calling it a heartbreak song cheapens it. "What Good Am I" asks the right questions. Enlightened narcissism as the guiding light? The theme continues with "Disease of Conceit" shifting the point of view back to the omnipresent like a lost chapter from the Old Testament.  God knows we need prophets now more than ever. Don't look at me says Dylan. Who is he addressing in "What Was It You Wanted?" Jesus? Judas?? Lucifer??? Fans???? Critics????? Himself?????? The World???????... My thoughts floated back to the Winter of '81, the front end of the decade. Drifting in those days, drifting all day and all night, with Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding on constant rotation.  The two brothers Tim and Jeff frequently stopping by plotting their futures; Empire builders with no armies and complicated motivations. Those records offered poignancy and meaning to banality. "What Was it You Wanted" channeled those old sentiments of mine, late night conversations in a lonely place where dream and reality intermingle. A way station where existential tensions get absolved. The finale "Shooting Star" features arrivals/departures, goodbyes/hellos, something close to a complete circle. Some thoughts on Oh Mercy, late summer 1989.


  1. ....and suddenly Bob was back and firing on all cylinders!

  2. Thanks again for a great article, though I, like probably a lot of UK fans, associate it with a sudden and cheerless autumn after our hottest summer in years. Maybe in the end lacking in the ‘big’ songs, but focussed, free of the irritating flaws that mar so many of his albums, and with some of his most precise and telling phrasing (though it’s on this album I think we begin to really notice the physical deterioration of his voice).

  3. John: Thanks for the comment. Not a "great" album, but near great at least, and a creative breakthrough after so many misfires. Dylan's own chapter on Oh Mercy in Chronicles is excellent, also Lanois includes some great Dylan stories in his memoir Soul Mining. Yes, the voice starts to get creaky, but really suits the mood of these songs, especially on "Most of the Time."

  4. If you care to read, here's my take on Oh Mercy...