Firstly, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that what’s commonly regarded as Dylan’s best album of the 80s came after a period of inactivity and great doubt – I guess he really took a decade’s worth of wrist slaps seriously. After receiving a hand injury in late 1987 that prevented him from being able to play guitar, he questioned whether or not he should continue his musical career (apparently, he was going to be a businessman instead), and after a creative fever one night, he wrote twenty verses of “Political World” and the rest of Oh Mercy slowly gestated after that as his injury recovered, shyly presenting the ideas to George Harrison and Bono who both goaded him to continue. One wonders if the previously albums he released in the 80s would have been as bad if he had the same self-doubts.
Anyway, this is a good album. It’s been mistaken for something more – the comeback album to end all comeback albums – by people who were just happy Bob Dylan made a respectable and digestible piece of work (not exactly high praise, but it’s praise nonetheless), abandoning the gospel choirs, drums and horns that were all preset functions on a Walmart keyboard that he had been using for the greater part of the preceding decade. To wit, Rolling Stone’s Anthony DeCurtis makes a big huzzah, hoopla and hootenanny about how this is Bob Dylan’s own Steel Wheels (Rolling Stone’s comeback album to end all comeback albums that same year) … I mean, I guess? In that, looking back, neither of them really stood for anything in either’s discography?
The problem is simple: one of the greatest singer/songwriters in the world can’t seem to sing any of the words on most of this album with any sort of weight; usually melodically but more often than not, meaningfully. And because of this, not a single one of these songs are classic Dylan tunes. “Everything is Broken” is the first offender, wherein Bob Dylan spends every verse listing things that are broken, before concluding (at the end of every verse, no less and each time after a dramatic pause) that everything is broken. Gee. Fucking. Thanks. I mean, he’s done this milk-a-single-word-for-all-its-worth before on “Rainy Day Women 12 & 35,” but it was done with a great deal of wit there. Worse is “Disease of Conceit,” which doesn’t even offer an arrangement or melody like “Everything is Broken” did to make it worth listening to Bob Dylan complain about the world in really vague ways for what feels like forever. If it’s so bad, why bother?
Those are the album’s biggest failures, and though there may be other issues on other songs, they’re relatively minor. For example, the verses of “Political World” are just as humdrum as the previous two examples – it’s hard to say anything meaningful when you’re fitting it in a complicated ABCB rhyme scheme, with an internal rhyme on the C – but I forgive them because the guitar chug picks up any slack (you’re going to wish another fast-paced song appeared on the second half of the album) and because every time the main hook parts Dylan’s lips (eleven times, total), it’s so melodic it’s hard to say no. Elsewhere, “Where Teardrops Fall”’s hook is so obvious (it goes up the scale then it goes down the scale or else it gets the hose again), but thank the other instruments: the drum sound that I so much adore, the guitar slides behind Dylan during the verses, the sprinkle of piano that wasn’t needed but you’re thankful for anyway (at the 1:03 mark) and the inspired saxophone outro, obviously.
There are times when Dylan succeeds though. “Man in the Long Black Coat” is probably the greatest lyrical draw on the album (though I don’t need the cheesy cricket chirps that are added in the first half of the song and outro), describing a woman running off with a man who seems to be more evil than anything else (reminds me of Stephen King’s Randall Flagg). The lines “There are no mistakes in life some people say / It is true sometimes you can see it that way / But people don’t live or die, people just float,” could be taken as social critique, but as opposed to “Broken” or “Conceit,” they’re smart this time around. Elsewhere, “What Was It You Wanted,” packaged with a great harmonica hook, is vague enough that it can either be Dylan’s direct line to his audience (“What was it you wanted / You can tell me, I’m back / We can start it all over / Get it back on the track”) or to a lover. Meanwhile, I quite love the first two verses of “Shooting Star,” self-introspection seemingly after an affair under a shooting star metaphor (“Did I miss the mark or / Overstep the line / That only you could see”) though it’s rather unfortunate the bridge goes into a religious ramble that has nothing to do with the two preceding verses.
The biggest draw, though, is “Most of the Time” (featured in the film, High Fidelity). Whereas other mid-tempo songs on the album have a tendency to feel as long as they are, this one doesn’t feel like it crosses the 5-minute mark (or even the 4-minute mark for that matter) because of the healthy amount of echo (especially on the drums) that Daniel Lanois (of U2 fame) injects into the song. This is Dylan’s most personal track on the album – there’s no ambiguity of “What Was It You Wanted,” and no religious nonsense of “Shooting Star.” Each time he concludes a verse with the title’s words, there’s just so much weight to the preceding ones, that this is the clear exception to what I said earlier about his lyrics lacking meaning on Oh Mercy; “I don’t even notice / She’s gone / Most of the time,” “I can survive, / And I can endure / And I don’t even think / About her / Most of the time,” and “I don’t pretend / I don’t even care / If I ever see her again / Most of the time.” I, and I’m sure everyone who’s never gotten over anyone, can relate.