How Bob Dylan Got His Groove Back With ‘Oh Mercy’
Of all the low points Bob Dylan somehow steered into throughout his long career – the early '70s, the late '70s, the early '80s, etc. – none was as low as the one he reached by the mid and late '80s. A string of truly crappy albums (Knocked Out Loaded, Down in the Groove and Dylan & the Dead were unlistenable and forgettable) pretty much nullified the one-time legend's relevance.
He needed a jolt, something to pull him out those depths. He'd been through it before – most famously after 1970's much-hated Self Portrait album. Within five years of that bomb he had rebounded with Blood on the Tracks, one of his all-time best records. So it was only a matter of time before these latest bumps would be behind him, right?
Things weren't looking so rosy for Dylan in early 1989, when he started working on Oh Mercy, his 26th album, with Daniel Lanois, the producer who helped create the atmospheric soundscape on U2's classic The Joshua Tree just a couple of years before. Dylan needed to get his groove back. And he needed to get it back soon.
Armed with some of Dylan's strongest songs of the decade – including "Everything Is Broken" and "Ring Them Bells" – Lanois shaped the music in swampy mystique, giving the tracks the sort of production fuss the songwriter had eschewed for so many years. Oh Mercy sounds like no other album in Dylan's vast catalog. In a sense, it's as much Lanois' record as it is Dylan's.
But if that's what it took to pull the artist out of his slump, so be it. In a year of other noteworthy comebacks – Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever, the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels and Neil Young's Freedom rest at the top of the list – Oh Mercy stands up right next to those records. When it was released on Sept. 22, 1989, it debuted at No. 30 – Dylan's best showing in years. It appeared that the legend had returned.
And true to fashion, and his legend, Dylan removed a couple of the session's greatest songs before the album's release. Both "Series of Dreams" and "Dignity" were slated for the record – Lanois was even pushing for the former to be the lead-off cut – but Dylan nixed both from the final lineup. But he almost immediately added them to his live sets, and both songs showed up later on other records (including the first The Bootleg Series box set).
That's how strong the album was at the time. And for the time being, it looked as if Oh Mercy would be remembered as Dylan's late-career milestone. But after a few more records – including a pair of back-to-basic acoustic records – Dylan released Time Out of Mind in 1997, ruminating on death and sounding more forceful than he had in 20 years. He followed that up with 2001's Love and Theft, which in turn was succeeded by 2006's Modern Times.
All three albums have been heralded as Dylan masterpieces, and today they make Oh Mercy look like a brief rebound from the miserable '80s, not the comeback it was originally trumpeted to be. Indeed, the trio of records released between 1997 and 2006 are tougher, smarter and better than Oh Mercy.
But Oh Mercy did its job. Dylan got his groove back. He was relevant again. And his concerts became must-see events, freewheeling shows that never took you where you expected (or sometimes even wanted) to go. Oh Mercy isn't a career milestone. But it was the right move for the time. And for someone with Dylan's track record, that can be a big deal.