Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Oh Mercy

Five years ago I started to listening to music when I ran.  Criticize it, ridicule it, and abuse me for caving in to this creature comfort when I run, but it helps with the alone time.  I hear things on songs that I never noticed while having discs blasted at me over the stereo.

I listen to a lot of Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and The Grateful Dead.  But it was a run in the last week when I punched up Bob Dylan and just started to listening to album after album spanning the last 30 years of his work.  When "Oh Mercy" came on, it was like a bolt of lightning at hit me all over again.

When I first got this album in 1989 it was like an euphony.  Bob Dylan was still great.  He hadn't made a truly great album since 1979's "Slow Train Coming," the epic signaling of Dylan's full on embrace of Jesus Christ.  Despite the religiosity of Slow Train it is a great album.  But it still doesn't measure of to 1975's "Blood on the Track," arguably Dylan's masterpiece, which is saying a lot.

After Slow Train, Dylan showed flashes of brilliance throughout the 80's.  The first half of the decade was dedicated to his new found faith.  Truly great songs were few and far between.  "Every Grain of Sand" sticks out to me during this period. 

As he began to raise himself out of his religious haze with "Infidels" he had the material to match his best works of the 70's.  The opening tune "Jokerman" makes it worth the price of admission.  Yet, the songs Dylan left off is maddening.  Mark Knopfler had helped Dylan craft a masterpiece, but had to leave before the work was finished.  Inexplicably, incredible songs like "Blind Willie McTell" and "Foot of Pride" were left off the album.

Then the quality fell of precipitously.  "Empire Burlesque" has a couple of nice tunes but "Knocked Out Loaded" was a complete stinker.  "Down in the Grove" which followed, was horrendous.  Dylan had always rebounded from the occasional clinker but he was marching into irrelevancy.

He writes about hooking up with Daniel Lanois to produce his 26th studio album, "Oh Mercy."  It's worth the reading about the making of this record in his autobiography, "Chronicles, Volume 1."  The production value is first rate, the songs are even stronger.  Lanois whipped Dylan into shape.  Each of the 10 songs on this disc are a gem.  Some are instant classics.

Largely because everyone had written off Dylan, I don't believe this album got the just critical acclaim it deserved.  It didn't help that the work that followed, "Under a Red Sky" and the discs of covers, "Good as I've Been to You" and "World Gone Wrong," weren't "great." I think "Oh Mercy" was seen as a freak, a one-off, that Dylan had lost his mojo.

I challenge you to listen to "Oh Mercy."  It just comes at you in waves, from "Everything is Broken" to "Man in the Long Black Coat," to one of his greatest songs of longing, "What Good am I?"  It just rolls over you.

I don't know how or why Dylan lost his muse from 1990 to 1997.  I'd like to think the cover albums helped him re-discover his roots.  He then reconnected with Lanois and the classic "Time Out of Mind" rocked the world.  Dylan likes to discount Lanois layered, somewhat swampy technique, but I think Lanois helped him put him back on the path of making music in a way that suited his world weary voice. 

"Time Out of Mind" put Dylan firmly back on the road to relevancy.  You certainly can't argue with the quality of work that has followed over the last 16 years.  But that seed was planted in 1989's "Oh Mercy," perhaps the most important album of the last 30 years of his career.

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