Re-evaluating Dylan's weirdest and most controversial decade: the Eighties

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Dylan offers his own account of the making of Oh Mercy in Chronicles that hints at an inner turmoil that makes the initial sessions unexpectedly fraught and brings him into conflict with Lanois. Nothing seems to satisfy Bob at this point. He rejects the producer’s ideas and the arrangements cooked up by the band, despite the enormous patience Lanois displays as he attempts to accommodate Dylan’s indecision, constant revisions and general stubbornness. At times, it must have seemed like an impossible task, like hammering a nail into a plank with a feather. An album, however, is eventually made.

There is a further confrontation between Dylan and Lanois, however, over what will be on the final version. Chuck Plotkin, Mark Knopfler, Ira Ingber and Arthur Baker have all been left aghast at Dylan’s perverse omission of key tracks from Shot Of Love (“Caribbean Wind”, “Angelina”), Infidels (“Blind Willie McTell”, “Foot Of Pride”) and Empire Burlesque (the E Street Band version of “When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky”, “New Danville Girl”). Lanois is now appalled when Dylan drops the miasmic “Series Of Dreams”, a fantastic track unlike anything Dylan’s previously essayed, and decides also to ditch one of the first songs written for the album, “Dignity”. Lanois argues for the inclusion of both, risking Dylan’s wrath. It’s another tense moment in their relationship.

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For the best of the decade, Dylan has been mostly vilified by fans who have felt betrayed by his perverse waywardness. They have perhaps not fully grasped what possibly can be seen as a protracted attempt in these years by Dylan to strip away the mystique that has attached itself to him, to deny the predictive powers attributed to him by fans convinced of his far-sightedness to shed himself of the burden of unreasonable expectation, to always be the Dylan his fans expect him to be. This is the Dylan who in their presumption he has lost sight of, the Dylan of cascading visions, infallible.

If it has indeed been Dylan’s intention to turn himself into a journeyman musician, he has all too often in the recent past succeeded. But these fans listen to Oh Mercy and there are glimpses of the Dylan they have missed on the churning rockers “Political World” and “Everything Is Broken”, jittery litanies of woe, anxiety, terror and dread. There are echoes of his earlier militant evangelism on “Where Teardrops Fall” and “Ring Them Bells”, but even at its most oratorical, Oh Mercy is largely free of the scalding sermons of Saved and Shot Of Love. There is appreciation, too, of “Man In The Long Black Cloak”, whose chilling narrative can be traced back to the traditional “House Carpenter” but owes perhaps as much to the Southern Gothic of the Robert Mitchum movie The Night Of The Hunter.

The stark nocturnal blues and self-examination of “What Good Am I?” and the lacerating “Disease Of Conceit” are regarded as highlights, too. Better yet, though, is the deep-hewn regret of “Most Of The Time”, Dylan sounding both wry and vulnerable over the low rolling thunder of guitar feedback, fractured harmonics, cloudbursts of melting dissonance. The two songs that close the album, meanwhile, seem to directly address his audience and their demands of him. “What Was It You Wanted” is chiding, “Shooting Star” elegiac.

There is some dissent over the sonic landscape Lanois contrives for the album, but on the whole Oh Mercy on its release in September 1989 is hailed as a great return in a year that also sees major comeback albums from Neil Young with Freedom and Lou Reed with New York. Dylan’s back, the headlines proclaim, although as ever no-one is quite specific about which Dylan they’re talking about. Whatever, hallelujahs generally abound.

The euphoria doesn’t last, of course. Dylan’s next album is panned, Under The Red Sky dismissed as a sorry follow-up to Oh Mercy, largely misunderstood. There will be no new original songs for seven long years, until he returns in 1997 with Time Out Of Mind, when the last great act of his career begins.

The November 2016 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring our cover story on The Specials, plus Bon Iver, Bob Weir, Shirley Collins, Conor Oberst, Peter Hook, Bad Company, Leonard Cohen, Muscle Shoals, Will Oldham, Oasis, Lou Reed, Otis Redding, Nina Simone, Frank Ocean, Michael Kiwanuka and more plus 140 reviews and our free 15-track CD

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