Bob Dylan closed out the Eighties with Oh Mercy, arguably the strongest album from the singer-songwriter in a decade that saw both his creative ups (Infidels) and downs (Down in the Groove). Recorded in New Orleans, Oh Mercy can be considered a musical trivet consisting of Dylan, producer Daniel Lanois and a solid New Orleans rhythm section.
Lanois, who'd previously worked with U2 and Peter Gabriel, interrupted the recording of his own album, Acadie, to work with Dylan. "It's an enlightening experience, watching a great poet embark on a new voyage," says Lanois.
The majority of the album was cut live, with members of the Neville Brothers providing no-nonsense backing for Dylan's raspy, half-spoken vocals. His more cryptic compositions, however, found him accompanied only by Lanois and engineer Malcolm Burn. Although the sessions were shrouded in secrecy, one musician who was there recalls that Dylan was "extremely focused on his writing. He had the lyrics to his songs on a music stand in front of him, and he'd be writing and changing lyrics while people were running around the studio. He does a tune a number of different ways until he hits a groove that works. If things aren't working after a few takes, he goes on to another song."
"Political World" sets the album's lyric theme, boiling with savage musical intensity. Oh Mercy's only other rocker, "Everything Is Broken," is reminiscent of a Slim Harpo blues shuffle, complete with a squeaky harmonica solo. Still capable of making a listener feel squeamish, Dylan chides his audience on "What Was It You Wanted" and "Shooting Star." On the other hand, "What Good Am I" and "Most of the Time" emerge as his most personal compositions in many years.
While it would be unfair to compare Oh Mercy to Dylan's landmark Sixties recordings, it sits well alongside his impressive body of work. It is also an encouraging sign that Dylan's creativity will continue to flourish in the coming decade.