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.
Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series 1-3
The Basement Tapes had already proved that Dylan had a tendency to leave some of his best material in the vaults – which I’m not including because I could write an entire post on the subject. This is certainly true on this first installment of his famous Bootleg Series. “She’s Your Lover Now”, “Talking John Birch Society Blues” rank among with some of his work from the 1960s. Elsewhere, “Blind Willie McTell“, “Foot of Pride”, and “Series of Dreams” show that no one could write a song like Dylan, despite decent but not earth-shattering albums such as Infidels and Oh Mercy. But for me, the real revelations comes from alternate versions of familiar songs. The original version of “Tangled Up in Blue” opens up like a novel becomes even more poignant and devastating than the original. “Idiot Wind” loses some of its bite from the scathing version found on Blood on the Tracks, but the sting is worse. Dylan seemed more wounded here than the possessed. “If Not For You” gets some extra help from George Harrison – who would later take this arrangement for his own cover of the song on All Things Must Pass. Many artists would kill to have songs Dylan just seems to leave on the cutting-floor. And this isn’t even my favorite installment of the Bootleg Series – that would go to Volume 8 – Tell Tale Signs.
The Who – Odds & Sods
I admit to not having listened to Odds & Sods in a few years until the other day since I’ve come out of my Who-phase. This was one of the first of these collections that I bought. In high school, I was obsessed with The Who – they’re the perfect soundtrack for teenage angst. The original material is interesting and worthwhile for Who fanatics. The kid’s story of “Little Billy” is a anti-smoking ditty with some of Keith Moon’s best drumming. The Lifehouse center-piece “Pure and Easy” has border-line pretentious existentialist lyrics, which is saved bv the music which contains some of the Who’s best 1970s harmonies and a pretty awesome fade-out. But the real highlight of the set comes from the early R&B covers including frenzied versions of “Baby Don’t You Do It” and “Leaving Here”. With these versions The Who rightfully secure their infamous “maximum R&B” tag.
Bruce Springsteen – The Promise
I don’t have Tracks, so I can’t comment on that particular set. But The Promise, unlike a lot of similar collections is a full-realized work albeit in different ways then its spawn, Darkness on the Edge of Town. While there is some of the bleakness on The Promise (particularly the title track) many of the songs show Springsteen’s affection for early rock and roll and pop songs from the 1960s. The backing vocals on “Gotta Get That Feeing” recall some of the early Phil Spector singles. “Wrong of the Side Street” is rocking fun in the best possible E-Street Band way. The inclusion of Springsteen’s version of “Fire” and “Because the Night” are a nice addition, but Patti Smith’s version of the latter remains the definitive version. What is most interesting about The Promise though is that Springsteen ditched some of his most accessible work here in favor of the more challenging songs found on Darkness. What would his stature be like if he had released some of these songs between Born to Run and Darkness? It’s hard to say.
Pearl Jam – Lost Dogs
Lost Dogs is a collection that won’t bring any converts to Pearl Jam. But it does contain some stellar material that showcases Pearl Jam taking on a wide variety of styles thats not always apparent on their proper albums. The Howard Zinn inspired “Down” is one of their catchiest songs. “Alone” is Ten-style rocker that should have replaced “Deep”. Surprisingly for Pearl Jam there are a lot of songs that are pure fun. Guitarist Stone Gossard takes lead vocals for the crunchy rocker “Don’t Gimme No Lip” which has very few words outside of the title. “Whale Song” contains some cool guitar effects to recreate the sound of whale calls. And then there’s “Dirty Frank” a ridiculous ode to one of their bus drivers.
R.E.M. – Dead Letter Office
By no means a great collection and Peter Buck admits as much in the liner notes. But I have a soft spot for this collection since it was one of the first ones of these I owned and it introduced me to the Velvet Underground with three covers – “Femme Fatale”, “There She Goes Again” and “Pale Blue Eyes“. Like Lost Dogs, R.E.M. show their playful side here with the surf inspired “White Tornado”, and the hilarious “Seven Chinese Brothers” alternate take, “Voice Of Herald” which finds Michael Stipe singing lyrics off of an old Christian LP. A must! Worth having because the CD version contains their first LP Chronic Town.