On an afternoon in early 1989, a group of musicians gathered at a house tucked away on a quiet street in New Orleans. Inside, amplifiers were set up in closets, and a studio had been built in the kitchen. “When you looked at the house from the outside, you would never dream a whole studio was set up in there,” recalls percussionist Cyril Neville of the Neville Brothers. At least one of the musicians, local guitarist Mason Ruffner, had no idea who he’d be recording with. When Dylan emerged in a sweatshirt with the hood pulled over his head, Ruffner’s response was, “‘Oh, shit — I don’t think I’m worthy of this!’ ”
After his run of disastrous Eighties albums, Dylan wasn’t so confident himself: “It was either come up with a bunch of songs that were original and pay attention to them, or get some other real good songwriters to write me some songs,” he said.
Dylan had been working on a batch of new material — some just lyrics, some with the barest of melodies — and one night he showed the lyrics to Bono, who in turn suggested Dylan work with Daniel Lanois, the Canadian producer who’d worked on U2’s The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree. “I was looking to make a masterpiece for Bob Dylan,” says Lanois, “and I wanted him to be at the center of the picture. I didn’t care about the framing.” Dylan liked the setup Lanois had arranged at the house in New Orleans, complete with alligator heads and odd stuffed animals strewn about. As Dylan recalled, “You didn’t have to walk through secretaries, pinball machines and managers and hangers-on in the lobby, and parking lots and elevators and arctic temperatures.”
Yet despite the idyllic setting, the album that would become Oh Mercy got off to a less-than-promising start. One day, Dylan left at the end of a session with what he thought was a solid take of “Political World,” a chugging rocker. But when he returned the next day, he was shocked to hear Lanois’ atmospheric mix. A frustrated Lanois smashed his Dobro on the floor, sending one of the studio assistants fleeing from the room in tears. “I thought, this is only the first song,” Dylan later wrote. “It should be easier than this.”
Dylan would take repeated stabs at the tunes, each one with a different tempo and feel. Meanwhile, Lanois felt Dylan was falling into old, lazy habits. “Maybe he was feeling a little pressure,” Ruffner says. “He disagreed just to disagree sometimes with Daniel.”
But the songs began to take shape: the sulking ballad “Most of the Time,” the anguished ballad “What Good Am I?” and the stately “Ring Them Bells.” “I didn’t want to have a lot of clanging around on this record,” says Lanois, who recorded Dylan playing over a Roland 808 drum machine (the same one Marvin Gaye used on “Sexual Healing”), and then brought in the Neville Brothers’ Willie Green for overdubs. “I wanted to concentrate on the lyrics and the sound of the voice.”
Released on September 18, 1989, Oh Mercy felt modern yet timeless, accessible yet imbued with ambiguity. Dylan, never known for loving his studio records, would call it “haunting, not stumbling or halting.” (To thank Lanois, Dylan drew a sketch of the producer and gave it to him as a gift — returning later, in the rain, because he had forgotten to sign it.) “If someone has been great,” says Lanois, “they can be great all over again.”
This piece originally appeared in a special issue of Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan: The Complete Album Guide (2015)