Several things happened to Bob Dylan before he released Oh Mercy in 1989. First, he injured his hand and had some down time while he recovered. He filled those hours by writing songs. Oh Mercy would be his first album in a number of years to contain all original compositions.
Second, his work with the Traveling Wilburys in 1988 seemed to rejuvenate him. His association with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne would find him relaxed and engaged. Third, he decided to employ producer Daniel Lanois, a veteran who'd produced a number of albums by this time including The Joshua Tree by U2 and So by Peter Gabriel. Lanois would provide a very strong and creative production for the album and would return for the Grammy winning Time Out Of Mind.
The reception for this album was positive as it was his most accessible and intimate album in years. The sales were also stronger that his recent efforts as Dylan finally seemed comfortable with the passage of time.
Two of the first three songs find him ranting against the modern world. These songs showed he was back with a vengeance. “Political World” finds him once again in protest mode, which is always a good and healthy place for him to be. “Everything Is Broken” has similar content but is stronger musically. It was the first single released from the album. “Where Teardrops Fall” was the second song and split the two political tracks. It is a simpler tune and really provides a good early break to clear the musical palate.
I find the fourth and fifth songs to be the heart of the album. Open your hymnal and turn to page Dylan as “Ring Them Bells” is filled with religious imagery. This is the type of song I wish he had produced during the fundamentalist Christian phase of his career. “Man In The Long Black Coat” is a story song, the kind he excels at. This think track is filled with apocalyptic imagery that is difficult to pin down. This is Dylan at his best.
“What Good Am I?” and “What Was It You Wanted” are tracks that revolve around moral worth or the lack there of. I can’t help but think that Dylan might have been doing some personal self assessment as he approached fifty. The album concludes on a strong note with “Shooting Star.” A song of remembrance with excellent lyrics, it would appear in different forms as his career progressed.
Oh Mercy finally finds Bob Dylan looking toward the future with some vision. How much affect Daniel Lanois had on this comeback album is really unknown but my guess is that he was a valuable part of the process. He seems to have understood his music as well if not better than any producer he would use.
I can think of five or so better Dylan albums than Oh Mercy but not ten, which is high praise given the quality of his catalogue.