If you were to find yourself copies all of Bob Dylan’s studio and live albums (not to mention the eleven-volume Bootleg Series) you’d need a pretty big shelf for your collection of more than sixty records. There are probably a lot of complete collections here in the Twin Cities alone, and all over the world.
We don’t have a complete Dylan discography at home, but we do have a big shelf of his albums — and we’d have a hard time choosing a favorite. Dylan’s career has gone through so many different eras, and each has its highlights. When, for instance, the Bootleg Series presented outtakes from New Morning and Self Portrait a couple years ago, we we very excited — those are two of our favorites. We posted a couple tracks here at the time.
We’re also fans of his recent albums, especially Modern Times and Tempest, and of this 1989 record which is often described as one of his “comeback” albums.
Dylan’s ’89 affair was not the only “comeback” of the era. The same was said of several baby boomer artists — Lou Reed’s New York and Neil Young’s Freedom, for instance, and whatever Paul McCartney released that year. Like the others, Dylan balanced fresh social commentary with introspection about aging. At the time, this was lost on Gen Xers like ourselves, who were more in tune with younger artists, but we’re seeing albums like Oh Mercy become more popular with our peers as we all grow into our own time for introspection.
Oh Mercy is otherwise very different from the back-to-basics of New York and Freedom, because Dylan chose to work with producer Daniel Lanois, who at the time was best known for his work on U2’s The Joshua Tree and Peter Gabriel’s So. The result is a lushly layered landscape never before heard on a Dylan album, and a very different approach to recording his voice.
Oh Mercy is the first step towards the sound Dylan would embrace ten years later with Time out of Mind (also produced by Lanois) and the several albums since (all produced by Dylan himself). You can especially hear this sound evolving in “Most of the Time,” which treats Dylan’s trademark rasp as an advantage, rather than trying to hide its rough edges through mixing, as producers had done throughout the 80s. Its a shame the same technique wasn’t used on songs like “Brownsville Girl,” the epic track stranded in the middle of Knocked Out Loaded, one of the most disappointing Dylan albums.
The reason we’ve been listening to Oh Mercy lately is “Ring Them Bells,” a song which seems to fit nearly any era, but especially one in which horrible things like what happened in Paris last week are heartbreakingly commonplace. Lanois lays his reverberated guitar lower on this track, on which Dylan himself plays the piano. We’ve seen Dylan on nearly every visit to the Twin Cities since Oh Mercy, but haven’t ever heard him play this song.
Most of Oh Mercy is dark and desperate, like the next song, “The Man in the Long Black Coat.” This is the mood of most of Dylan’s recent albums. Unlike some other 60s icons, Dylan has aged with grace and a measure of dignity. That’s why he can appear in a lingerie ad without seeming like a dirty old man, and its one of the reasons we’ve stuck with him through the good albums and the bad albums.
Last year a local music blog ran an interview in which some kids described a new record store as the only one in town run by someone under fifty. It stung a little, since neither of us is near fifty yet, and we both feel pretty young even though we have the trappings of older folks: two kids, mortgage, nuanced non-dogmatic views, and yes, not the same faces we had at twenty. George Carlin once commented our thirties are hard because the whole world seems to be eighteen or forty-five.
On the other side of the album, Dylan says “there’s a whole lot of people tonight suffering from the disease of conceit,” and he’s right. And you can’t let that stuff get to you, because another great songwriter, Taylor Swift, is right:
Players gonna play play play
Haters gonna hate hate hate
Baby, I’m gonna shake shake shake
Shake it off
When he recorded Oh Mercy, Dylan still had some of his best work up ahead, and also some lean years where he admits in Chronicles Volume I the songs just didn’t come as easily as they once had. That’s why he recorded those couple albums of old folk songs. The one bright spot of his mid-90s output, “Dignity,” first first appeared on Greatest Hits Volume 3 and MTV Unplugged, but the song was actually an outtake from Oh Mercy.
Tolstoy was seventy-two when he wrote Resurrection, one of the best novels we can recall reading. There’s enough examples like that to fill a motivational poster. John Glenn was seventy-seven when he went into space. He went into fucking space!
And Colonel Sanders didn’t open the first Kentucky Fried Chicken until he was sixty-five. It’s true, look it up!
So who knows, maybe we’ll grow old here at Hymie’s, so long as we’re all still having fun. Who knows what the record store be like in 2050? One thing’s for sure, we won’t be here if we start to look like the guy on the left. There’s a reason Bart and Milhouse despise him.