Oh Mercy

Oh Mercy

Bob Dylan was certainly busy during the 1980s—if not altogether successful. After a long gap in the early 1970s, he went on a productive tear for nearly two decades, never taking more than two years to put out a new record. In 1979, he began his Christian-conversion trilogy; by the time he’d finished it in 1983, though, his sales had slumped, with each entry in Dylan’s subsequent string of occasionally strong records slipping further down the charts. 1985’s Biograph, a compelling and career-spanning box set, was his post-gospel commercial salvation. His other salvation at the close of a complicated Dylan decade? The Canadian producer in love with New Orleans, Daniel Lanois, and the triumph they made together, 1989’s Oh Mercy. On a humid autumn evening after a Louisiana tour stop, Dylan rendezvoused with Lanois, then making a Neville Brothers record down south. Bono had recommended Lanois, and Dylan took an immediate liking to his black-clad visage, and imaginative and artistic approach to making records. Lanois set up an ad hoc studio in a Victorian mansion and assembled a band of familiar Southern ringers, including Cyril Neville and drummer “Mean” Willie Green. During the last decade, Lanois had made hits with U2, gorgeous soundscapes with Brian Eno, and Americana experiments with the Nevilles. He wrangled all of that for Dylan, digging into swampy surrealism for “Everything is Broken,” moody electronics for “Most of the Time,” and ecclesiastic foreboding for “Ring Them Bells.” Lanois rooted Dylan in the past, then helped him turn toward the future. What’s more, Dylan had penned his most compelling set of songs in years—and sang them with a conviction that suggested he knew it. On the opening track, the shuffling-and-churning “Political World,” he’s as disgruntled with the machinations of government as he was in his twenties, albeit with a little more poetic softness. “What Good Am I?” is a poignant survey of our responsibilities to those we purport to love, and to taking care of others as we look after ourselves. And during the haunting “Man in the Long Black Coat,” Dylan digs into the murder ballads and tales of lost love from his youth to mourn and moan, his baby having gone to the devil. But it was on “Most of the Time”—a lovesick soliloquy introduced by feedback, and guided by layers of percussion and guitar so sophisticated they suggested the ornate lacework of a wedding dress—that suggested just how good the Dylan-and-Daniel tandem could be. It set the stage for their next rendezvous, too, still seven years away.

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