When OH MERCY came out in 1989, it was largely hailed as the second coming (or third, or fourth, but whose counting?) of Bob Dylan. But does it really stand up to the heaps of praise so many people were anxious to bestow upon the record? Well, first let's examine why the critics were so pleased by the record. A little bit of history is required to understand this album's critical reception
By 1989, when OH MERCY was released, a lot of people had given up on Dylan. Ever since 1983 with Infidels, a decent enough record but one marred by deleting the best tracks recorded at the sessions, Dylan floundered in a wasteland of rather bizarre, very dated production techniques and some just atrocious records. The overall critical consensus (one that I disagree with), finds the 1985 EMPIRE BURLESQUE a poor release. Personally, I think EB is a great record. KNOCKED OUT LOAD, DOWN IN THE GROOVE, and the live DYLAN & THE DEAD were all panned, and for good reason. The Dylan/Dead tour of 1987 was also lambasted by critics and fans alike. The shows where so shambling and Dylan and the Dead so out of it that they were barely listenable. Dylan was at his all time lowest professionally.
In steps Daniel Lanios of U2 fame. He is known for atmospheric, moody music, and, like Phil Spector, has a very definitive "sound" that he brings to all his projects, regardless of the artist. While Dylan would later on express dissatisfaction with Lanois's sound on their second collaboration, TIME OUT OF MIND, Lanois made Dylan's music sound artier and more sharply produced than it had been in decades. While the previous two studio albums had a song selection that appeared to be picked at random from several different recording sessions with different bands for each session, OH MERCY was sharp, focused, and had a cohesive feel to it that KNOCKED and DOWN were severely lacking. OH MERCY actually sounds like an album, not songs randomly picked out from different sessions spread over several years.
While Lanois helped hone the music, Dylan also rediscovered his flair for words. While he never really lost that, Dylan once again decided to prominently display his poetic gifts, and to grand display. Dylan's lyrics sound focused and forceful, singing with conviction about politics, Israel, two relationship songs and one questioning the narrator's self-worth. The rest of the material stands out as well, proving Dylan's inspiration could still ring true. "Most of the Time" is an especially devastating love song gone ary, and lyrically, though not sonically, sounds like it is cut of the same clothe as BLOOD ON THE TRACKS. Indeed, "Most of the Time" sounds like the narrators of Blood aged several years.
My complaints are three. I personally think the placement of "Disease of Conceit" ruins the running order of this, with songs 7, 8, and 9 being, at least to me, being of the same type and something of a song cycle with the mood they create. It should have been placed before "Most of the Time", which stands as one of Dylan's best "painful" songs. "Shooting Star" has a special place in my heart, it being the one Dylan song I knew back in the 1980s and 1990s, or at least was aware of it somehow. Vaguely.
As with any Dylan album, what was left OFF the album is often as revealing as what was put onto it. Dylan recorded several strong songs that, for whatever reason, he chose to cut from the final running order. The first two songs are "Dignity" and "Series of Dreams". Lanois wanted to open the record with "Series of Dreams", but Dylan disagreed. Dylan released a radically remixed version of "Dignity", remixed by Brendan O'Brien of grunge fame (produced most of Pearl Jam's work), in 1994 on his third greatest hits. The original version produced by Lanios, which Dylan did not like and would not release on OH MERCY, would appear on the 1997 soundtrack of the smash show "Touched by an Angel". Dylan has always displayed some strange choices on what he left off his albums. Listen to THE BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 1-3. Most of that stuff should have been issued on the appropriate album, and both "Dignity" and "Series of Drams" should have been included on this. But as another reviewer said, if Dylan wasn't willful and perverse he wouldn't be Dylan. Self Portrait stands as apt evidence for that phenomenon.
There were two additional songs, all of which would appear on Dylan's next album, that were written and recorded for OH MERCY but not released on that album. These were "God Knows," "Born in Time", songs which, especially the later, are as strong as anything that made the final cut. Unlike the other two songs, "God Knows" and "Born in Time" were released on the 1990 effort "Under the Red Sky", making up for their omission from OH MERCY.
Lanois and Dylan work well together, although this feels like a not fully realised release when compared to their next collaboration, the masterpiece TIME OUT OF MIND. OH MERCY pales to that, but as its own its worth four stars. Kind of like this was just something of a warmup to the real masterpiece that they still had in store. If the next release is like OH MERCY is too TIME OUT OF MIND, it will be his best album ever
In the end, is it what its cracked up to be? Yes and no. It's a good release, but not his best. It certainly was the light at the end of the 1980s tunnel. I feel that OH MERCY was so highly praised, along with THE TRAVELING WILBURYS, simply because it felt like Dylan was back from whatever funk he had been in, much like the critical reaction to NEW MORNING after SELF PORTRAIT. I do feel that it, along with EMPIRE and INFIDELS, makes a strong case that the 1980s weren't as bad as everyone says for Dylan.
(Just a little note: EMPIRE BURLESQUE is just as good as this is. In fact, AMG rates EMPPIRE BURLESQUE 4 & 1/2 stars while this only merits 3.
Also, outtakes to all but "Man in the Long Black Coat" and "Disease of Conceit" are circulating. Some feature different lyrics, and I actually like the outtake version of "Political World" better than the released version. An alternate version of "Most of the Time" was released in 1990 on a promotional EP)