T for Tom

Day 29 – Oh Mercy – 1989

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 20, 2016



A couple months ago, shortly before I started this adventure, I turned on some random Bob Dylan records, because it was the seed to the idea. I had forgotten about this particular day until now, because the feeling that swept over me then has come about a second time: what a surprisingly great album is Oh Mercy.

The pits, the falls, the highs and lows, its combination of vocal clarity and sparse, sometimes empty composition muzzled between different ends of groovy, dark alleyway tracks, makes for a story untold by Dylan before. The scuttle is buttin’ from the get-go, and it makes for a story told by ear – the first time in a long time that’s been done.

A key component, and maybe the only component, is that it is the first album since the gospel years to feature only Bob Dylan as a writing credit. It might have something to do with his confidence then that he knew what he was doing, even if took a decade to get there.

“We live in a political world / Love don’t have any place / We’re living in times / Where men commit crimes / And crime don’t have any face,” are the first words greeting the listener, and it’s some of the best he’s nailed down in years, coated over a jangly bar tune befit for a film noir car chase. Down the line we get sullen saxophone solos, and long, weepy harmonicas. Truly everything in its place.

Produced by Daniel Lanois, it’s an attempt to really stick to what made Bob Dylan great in the first place. This is no more evident in any place than with “Ring Them Bells.” It’s also a bellwether moment in Dylan’s career, as it is clear now the direction his voice is taken. Set over a slow, low piano, the register in his voice gets low, and for the first time (as we know happens ever since) it begins to rumble and scratch, nearly to unintelligible. But for its sincerity, its pause, and its creed, it’s a welcome change.

Strangely enough, these delicate moments seem more close to his own gospel than anything he ever attempted on purpose. The title after all, Oh Mercy, is akin to any cry ever made unto god. And while there is certainly a political, worldly use of the moniker, it can’t be mistaken how holy these songs come off the record.

The solution seems simple now, looking back, and I’m sure he came to the same – after increasing his personnel, his sessions, and his band members ten fold for years, it just took a little bit less.

We could all maybe take a piece from this book: can’t cover up the truth, just be you.

Song: “Most of the Time”

This song fits right in with anything done by Ryan Adams or The National or whoever’s trying to write the latest indie-Americana-folk hit, except it was 1989 and it’s a great song.

“My head is on straight, most of the time.”


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