Twenty 22 years after its initial release, it’s hard view Oh Mercy as the “comeback” album that critics suggested upon its initial release. It’s certainly Dylan’s most consistent album of the 1980s, thanks in large part to the production and assistance of Daniel Lanois. Many of Dylan’s 80s albums have been viewed as misfires due to the exclusions of certain songs that would later appear on the various Bootleg Series. In retrospect, Oh Mercy suffers not from lack of quality songs (though why the hell “Series of Dreams” is missing is still baffling) but rather inferior versions of keys songs.
Lanois was wise to eschew the large production and big-band sound that had plagued many of Dylan’s 80s albums. Instead, Oh Mercy offers an atmospheric swamp-type vibe that never overshadows Dylan, though something that would happen on Time Out of Mind. Oh Mercy, is probably the first appearance of Dylan’s modern-day smokey, weary voice. It hasn’t fully descended into the voice of the man who wonders if he can get into heaven before the door closes, but it gives resonance to a song like “Most of the Time”. Dylan’s gravelly voice gives extra weight as he confesses that, “most of the time she ain’t even in my mind”. It’s a heartbreaking song, but his voice makes you believe he’s probably felt this way for over a decade. “I don’t even care if I never see her again,” He croons at the end. The listener feels bad, because he’s clearly lying, and he probably knows it too.
Elsewhere, Dylan gives an updated version of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with the laundry list of broken things in “Everything Is Broken”. The lyrics aren’t shot out at 60mph, but like the iconic 1965 single, the lyrics by themselves don’t make much sense by themselves. However, its quite effective as Dylan runs through the gamut – “Broken bottles, broken plates, Broken switches, broken gates, Broken dishes, broken parts”. The closer, “Shooting Star” is probably my favorite song off the album, and I was first introduced to it on Bob Dylan Unplugged, which I only listened to once, and found myself absolutely loving this gorgeous song.
Oh Mercy’s acclaim has probably dimmed in years in part due to Dylan’s own renaissance in the late 90s and 2000s, but for mid-career Dylan it’s a definite high point.