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Favourite albums: Bob Dylan

My top 5 songs by Bob Dylan, in no particular order: Obviously 5 Believers, Most of the Time, Simple Twist of Fate, Moonlight, and Cold Irons Bound.

But, individual songs aside, the real question is this: has Bob Dylan ever released a perfect album?

Blonde on Blonde comes close, but it starts with the juvenile Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35 and its hideous brass band accompaniment. Blood on the Tracks also comes close, but unfortunately it includes Lily, Rosemary and Jack of Hearts (there’s no reason why a song should last for more than 8 minutes, ever).

My favourite Dylan album is, in fact, Oh Mercy. Atmospheric, intimate and wistful; powerful in quite an understated way.

Released in 1989, Oh Mercy was Dylan’s 26th album, and followed a succession of albums that had been fairly poorly received. It was written after a period of time in which Dylan hadn’t really felt like writing much at all: “I had stopped doing that, just wasn’t crazy for it”. His lack of inspiration was partly due to the fact that he’d lost the use of his hand after a “freak accident:” he spent most of the daylight hours asleep in a chair, thinking about “how small everything had become”. Then, one night, sitting alone in kitchen after his family had gone to bed, he wrote the song Political World which became the album’s opening track. After that, another 20 or so songs soon followed: “they were easy to write, seemed to float downstream with the current.”

Recorded in a Victorian mansion near a cemetery in New Orleans, the record was produced by Daniel Lanois. Apparently – and unsurprisingly - Dylan was often sullen and grumpy: allegedly, when the sound engineer put the microphone in front of Dylan’s mouth, Dylan would turn the other way.

I really like the reverb-heavy production on the album, but I do find it quite funny that Dylan said he felt like he was “was singing from the midst of the herd, a lot of artillery and tanks in the background.” I guess Lanois’ approach was quite different from what Dylan was used to previously.

Oh Mercy is a gloomy album: there’s a real sense of pessimism and resignation, but it’s also quite direct and persistent. Dylan said that Lanois “didn’t want to float on the surface. He didn’t even want to swim. He wanted to jump in and go deep. He wanted to marry a mermaid.”

I also really like the way Dylan sings on this record: his voice is rich and powerful, without being too gravelly. I think Lanois did a great job of capturing his voice. If I listen to Disease of Conceit, for example, I feel like Dylan’s in the same room as me. A lot of the songs have that sense of intimacy. It’s something that you don’t hear so much in subsequent Dylan albums. Lanois said he always had the vocals at the front of his mind. “I don’t add the vocal to the track, I add the track to the vocal”. In a Q&A about the recording of the album, he said he “wanted to make sure that Dylan’s voice was captured powerfully, rendered with sincerity, and be viewed as great as it ever was”.

Most of the songs on Oh Mercy are beautifully melancholic ballads. In my opinion, Most of the Time is one of the best songs Dylan has ever written. I really like Lanois’ ambient arrangement, with the layers of moody guitars, but there’s something really affecting about Dylan’s lyrics here: they’re simple, but there’s a real sense of resignation and disappointment: “I can follow the path, I can read the signs, stay right with it when the road unwinds. I can handle whatever I stumble upon, I don’t even notice she’s gone. Most of the time”. I love the additional ‘most of the time’ at the end of the phrase: the subtle admittance that, actually, things aren’t OK.

Other highlights for me are the gorgeous waltz Where Teardrops Fall, which features an unexpected saxophone solo at the end (I say ‘unexpected’ but I guess it was the 1980s after all….), the quietly sinister Ring Them Bells, and the atmospheric Man in the Long Black Coat: “Crickets are chirpin’, the water is high. There’s a soft cotton dress on the line hangin’ dry. The windows wide open, African trees. Bent over backwards from a hurricane breeze”. I can just picture the band recording these songs late at night, sitting on the back porch of the house, waiting for the storms to subside. As Dylan writes in Chronicles, “In New Orleans you could almost see other dimensions. There’s only one day at a time here, then it’s tonight, and then tomorrow will be today again. Chronic melancholia hanging from the trees.”

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