Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Revisit: Bob Dylan - Oh Mercy (1989)

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Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

Bob Dylan continues to ride a critical and commercial wave of adulation that shows no signs of receding. After a lean early 1990s with the underwhelming and inessential Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong and the earlier catastrophe that was Under the Red Sky, Dylan has since run off a string of albums that in many cases measure up nicely against his most revered older records. Starting with 1997's Time Out Of Mind and continuing through 2009's Together Through Life, all of Dylan's recent work has mostly met with widespread praise, breathless fawning and severe bouts of reviewer hyperbole. Though there were a few scattered voices of dissent that rightly pointed out some flaws with that 2009 effort, a new Dylan release is almost guaranteed to be accompanied by the well-worn clich├ęs and plaudits of those in awe of his music. The man could probably belch on tape for 45 minutes and Uncut would hail it an instant classic.

If this story sounds familiar, it's because it's been repeated throughout Dylan's career: a string of either forgettable or downright awful albums is followed by a noticeably better release or two that leads to the predictable talk of a Dylan resurgence/comeback/reinvention. Yet often lost in this glut of critics tripping over themselves and each other to proclaim Dylan "back" is any consideration of how well or poorly these albums will age. Music criticism by necessity largely deals in the present, though this approach has its obvious shortcomings: critics who won't admit that time has soured their love and altered their opinions of certain albums are unadulterated liars.

Contemporary reviews of Oh Mercy were positive. Clinton Heylin considered some songs on par with Dylan's best work, the wonderfully acerbic Robert Christgau was mostly impressed, Anthony DeCurtis offered a lengthy and flattering review and other reviewers characterized it as Dylan's strongest release since Desire. The album landed on several of those myopic year-end best-of lists; in the type of knee-jerk reaction and lack of perspective Rolling Stone has become known for, the magazine ranked Oh Mercy as #44 on its list of the 100 best albums of the 1980s. Yes, you read that correctly; for more laughs, it's worth checking out the complete, dreary and wildly amusing list.

Though it's usually described as Dylan's best 1980s album, that's akin to saying the Big Mac is the best burger at McDonalds: there's simply not much good material with which to compare it. To state that the 1980s was a rough decade for Dylan is being diplomatic. Aside perhaps from Infidels and pieces of Oh Mercy, Dylan's output from the Reagan/Bush years reads like a laundry list of studio disasters characterized by dated production techniques and instantly forgettable tunes; we don't need to exhume the bodies here. This isn't to imply that Oh Mercy is a bad album; it's not. With the type of lyrical craftsmanship Dylan is still best known for, "Ring Them Bells," "Shooting Star" and "Man in the Long Black Coat" are stellar and sound as relevant today as they did when the record was first released. It's still a satisfying and worthwhile listen: Dylan's lyrics offer plenty of fodder for those insisting to over-analyze, misinterpret and dissect his words and thus rob them of their mystery and beauty, while Daniel Lanois' production in some ways foreshadowed the approach later used on Time Out of Mind.

Yet time has a way of taking the luster off a release, and Oh Mercy is no exception. Now 20 years since its release in 1989, the album hasn't aged particularly well. Lanois' swamp-murk production shoulders a large part of the blame; it fails nearly as often as it succeeds, with "Political World" and "Most of the Time" suffering from the producer's quirks and idiosyncrasies and sounding too manufactured for their own good. In addition, a metallic sheen detracts from a few other tracks, with Dylan's vocals sounding thin and tinny on "Everything Is Broken" and" "Disease of Conceit." There are simply too many production flaws to look past; though Oh Mercy never comes close to repeating the train wreck of 1980s production values called Empire Burlesque, the songs might have been better served if a layer or two of these studio embellishments had been stripped away. It's worth mentioning that sparse versions of these songs have circulated on bootleg for years - and, finally, on Sony's latest official Bootleg Series volume - and show a warmth and immediacy to these songs that the album largely lacks. Stripped of the clutter that hinders much of Oh Mercy, these largely acoustic versions offer a tantalizing glimpse into what Oh Mercy could have been.

It's difficult not to think that Bob Dylan's abysmal 1980s work lowered both fans' and critics' expectations to the point where anything that was even marginally decent would be hailed as a "return to form." It's a phenomenon that's been repeated throughout the years, most recently with R.E.M. and the massively overrated Accelerate. Of course, criticizing Dylan is a fool's task - like a hack writer taking pot shots at a Hemingway or Fitzgerald - and any career as lengthy as Dylan's will have its share of failed albums. Still, as the years pass and offer more opportunity to re-assess Dylan's catalog, it's impossible to shake the feeling that Oh Mercy, while the strongest thing the musician did in the 1980s, hasn't exactly withstood the test of time and instead sounds like an album whose sporadic successes and more-prevalent failures cannot be separated from its over-saturated production style.

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