Did the Needle Just Skip :: 30 Years of Oh Mercy

“It’s hard to find pure forms. Forms of music and culture, these little hidden pockets are disappearing. I guess that’s just the way it goes with evolution.”

Producer and musician Daniel Lanois is speaking to us from his home in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, discussing his work with Bob Dylan on 1989’s Oh Mercy, a document that shows what purity and evolution sound like when they’re occurring simultaneously. This September marks 30 years since its release, but its swampy mood and wide-open lonesomeness feels outside the measurement of decades. “Time is beginning to crawl,” Dylan sings on “Where Teardrops Fall.” Time crawls within the world the album creates, too. 

Oh Mercy exists on its own plane, and the same is true of New Orleans, where it was fashioned. Lanois goes on to describe the Zydeco roots of Louisiana’s Lafayette area, its intangible dance hall ambiance. “Zydeco is the music that really touched me, and I wanted to make sure that I felt part of that. And Bob felt that down there. It was something that hadn’t been molested yet.”

The slow-burn noir of Oh Mercy exudes the untouched gothic mystery of its New Orleans environs—the humid timbre of the recordings shaped heavily by their setting. The region’s enigmatic spirit affected Dylan’s writing, which drifts between the worldly and introspective, setting a decidedly postmodern tone. Uncertainty is a mossy through-line, connecting anxieties both political and romantic, as if there was no dividing line between global unrest and personal disorder. On “What Was It You Wanted,” he asks in forlorn detachment: “Has the record been breaking? Did the needle just skip?” 

The years leading up to Dylan’s sojourn to the Crescent City had found the record skipping quite a bit. The late ‘80s found him plagued by a gnarly hand injury, one Dylan has always been vague about, but even more so than that, a feeling of creative resignation. “Had long ceased running towards it,” he writes in his 2004 memoir Chronicles. “When and if an idea would come, I would no longer try to get in touch with the base of its power.” Touring with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in ‘87, Dylan describes himself feeling adrift. The feeling persisted as he began work with the Grateful Dead. But a simple moment shifted his focus. During a rehearsal session with the Dead at the band’s Club Front in San Rafael, he stepped outside and stumbled upon a jazz combo playing through a doorway.

“Something was calling me to come in and I entered,” Dylan writes. “The singer reminded me of Billy Eckstine. He wasn’t very forceful, but he didn’t have to be; he was relaxed, but he sang with natural power. Suddenly and without warning, it was like the guy had an open window to my soul.” 

“Bob is very inspired by those little turning points in the day,” Lanois says. “He sees these little observations as beacons of a sort. They not only stir the imagination, but they’re a reminder of why we’re here and what we’re doing.”

The two shared an ability to locate the uncanny in small moments, which quickly established a bond. Coming off of work on U2’s The Joshua Tree and Peter Gabriel’s So, Lanois had decamped to New Orleans, taking over an abandoned apartment building as his studio and workspace. When Dylan was introduced to Lanois by their mutual friend Bono, he was laying down the spectral Yellow Moon with the Neville Brothers. The feel of the room moved Dylan, who was drawn in by the aesthetic and mood. 

“We had a bit of fun, just decorating and setting up the whole studio,” Lanois says. “Art Neville brought his stuffed bobcat, and yeah, we did have a couple alligator heads and moss and we just wanted to situate what would be perceived as a recording studio. And Dylan stopped in and I’m sure he thought ‘these people are doing something different.’ I think he appreciated that we were on the pulse of something, we were enthusiastic about our work. We were committed, we were lifers, and we were there to make masterpieces.” 

Part of Oh Mercy’s great power is its vessel-like existence; a work completely informed by the immediate senses from which it emanates. “Branches of trees hung overheard near a wooden trellis that climbed a garden wall,” Dylan writes in Chronicles. “Waterlilies floated in the dark-squared fountain and the stone floor was inlaid with swirling marble squares … I strolled into the dusk. And, much like the record itself, he writes “the air was murky and intoxicating.” Dylan’s descriptions of the character and feel of New Orleans echo the sounds and tenors of the record. “There’s a thousand different angles at any moment,” he writes. “In New Orleans you could almost see other dimensions. There’s one day at a time here, then it’s tonight and then tomorrow will be today again. Chronic melancholia hanging from the trees.”

Asked what he thought Dylan meant when he wrote that in New Orleans “the past doesn’t pass away so quickly here,” Lanois responds: “In New Orleans, we had access to the most wonderful music all the time, there was a little bar called the Maple Leaf, uptown, and it was just a little storefront place and the drummer played in the window with his back to his street, and you could walk by and check out the band just by looking in the window and they were just rockin’.” 

Joined by the Neville Brothers band – guitarist Brian Stoltz, bassist Tony Hall, drummer Willie Green, and percussionist Cyril Neville – Dylan, Lanois, and co. aimed to inhabit the scene he might have glimpsed looking through the window at the Maple Leaf Bar. The record absorbed members of the New Orleans community as recording went on: Rockin’ Dopsie and John Hart from the Maple Leaf Bar band came by to lay down some accordion and tenor sax. Not everyone involved was as seasoned. Engineer and keyboardist Malcolm Burn “had never engineered anything before,” says Lanois. “He was just a guy from Canada that I liked.” 

But there was a unity in their spirit. Lanois’ experimental curiosity introduced a completely novel recording approach to Dylan. In addition to the exotic palette the dobro, omnichord, and scrub board added to the production, Dylan chose to forego his usual big band approach and follow his producer on instinct into a largely intimate, one-on-one setting, working alone with Lanois and a Roland 808.

“I wanted to get to the heart of the matter,” Lanois says. “I wanted the center to be absolutely captured…The power of his stance and position is represented.”

The creative drought was over. Oh Mercy finds Dylan sounding inspired, impassioned, and indignant. Alternately, the record sounds at once like a sermon, a diary, and a faded old photograph. Housing swamp boogies and expansive gospel chimes, it’s musically eccentric, but direct and cohesive. Dylan glides seamlessly from the dark cloud thump of “Political World” where “wisdom is thrown in jail,” into the romantic dreamlike waltz of “Where Teardrops Fall,” its heartfelt saxophone dreaming aloud. The album finds him embracing rock & roll as a vital force; on “Everything Is Broken,” he catalogs the ills of societal decay, finding humor in the mundane, personifying the collapse of the damned. “Hound dog howling, bullfrog croaking,” he murmurs, sounding like a croak itself. 

Though Dylan’s “Christian Era” had ended, his new songs continued to make room for his spiritual longings, just as they had on Infidels earlier in the decade. The spacious gospel of “Ring Them Bells” recalls the pastoral calm of “Every Grain of Sand,” but finds the narrator in a more precarious state. “Time is running backwards and so is the bride,” he laments. In a sense, it’s the calm before the storm that is the apocalyptic “Man in the Long Black Coat.” Minimalist and foreboding, the stark and brooding ballad describes a misty, obscured netherworld. A graveyard séance, Dylan’s elegiac and graceful wordplay simmers with rich, poignant watercolors. “There’s smoke on the water/It’s been there since June/Tree trunks uprooted/Beneath the high crescent moon,” he sings, a dark and dusty trio of Lanois, Burn, and the man himself casting high spirits in a fog of dobro, 12-string, and keys.

“A peculiar change crept over the appearance of things,” Dylan reminisces about that recording in Chronicles. “…the production sounds deserted, like the intervals of the city have disappeared…The lyrics try to tell you about someone whose body doesn’t belong to him.” 

Lanois’ interpretation is perhaps purer, more romantic. “When you’re coming up as a kid, maybe you want to be a fireman,” he says. “Maybe you want to run away from certain things and start a new life. Discover the wonders and wanders that are available to you as an imaginative human. Whether it’s the circus or otherwise, it’s just a human inclination to want to reinvent, to discover, to take in a magic place. It pushes that button, I appreciate that Bob wrote about it, because we’ve all felt that somehow or another.”

The gentler second side begins with “Most of the Time,” a majestic and somber masterwork. The arrangement gives his words space to document the transience of love. “I can handle whatever/I stumble upon/I don’t even notice/She’s gone/Most of the time.” That last turn, that contradiction, sells it all. “Melancholia hanging from the trees” indeed. 

“The song is deep, man,” Lanois says. “It’s heavy. Most great art has contradiction in it and that song certainly has that in its spine. I wanted to create a sonic representation of the contradiction. I wanted to have this little tormented orchestra, this little ensemble. Playing cellos, violas, and violins, but without cellos, violas, and violins. So, I used a Les Paul Junior cranked all the way up to 10, and I overdubbed four parts of this heavy, single-note sound. So, the intertwining of these parts makes up that little exchange, that invisible string quartet that’s immense from a distance. I wanted to make sure that that the music was trying to destroy the singer at the same time as support him.”

The back half of Oh Mercy finds Dylan turning largely inward. The global unrest of the Cold War era may have been dissipating, but what was to come next? “What good am I,” he wonders. “If I know and don’t do/If I see and don’t say/If I look right through you?” But he points his finger too, wryly remarking on “Disease of Conceit” that “The doctors got no cure/They’ve done a lot of research on it/But what it is they’re still not sure.” Riffing on the defrocking of disgraced evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, Dylan focuses in on exactly how broken everything is. Searching for answers that might not exist, Dylan’s journey circles right back around to the elliptical on “What Was It You Wanted,” asking: “Is the scenery changing/am I getting it wrong?” The album’s closer, “Shooting Star,” feels like a letter written but never to be sent. “It’s the last temptation/the last account,” Dylan sings, knowing just enough to know he doesn’t know anything at all, only that “tomorrow will be another day.”

There’s a tactile somberness as the record winds down, leaning into a similar blurriness heard on Lanois’ own Acadie (also released in ’89). Even as they left serious gems like “Born In Times,” “Dignity,” and “Series of Dreams” on the cutting room floor, it’s clear that Dylan and Lanois were working off an atmosphere, loose but focused. Like 1969’s Nashville Skyline and 1970’s New Morning, which reflected the artist’s newfound domestic bliss, Oh Mercy is bracingly intimate. And like the inferno boogie gospel of 1979’s Slow Train Coming, it reflects a new look on reality, a specific time and place. A pure form. 

Dylan writes in Chronicles, “We did it as we damn well pleased and there was nothing more to say. When the record was all added up, I hoped it would meet head-on with the realities of life … I can’t say if it’s the record either of us wanted. Human dynamics plays too big a part, and getting what you want isn’t always the most important thing in life anyway.” 

This sense of humility is also shared in no small way by Lanois, who teamed with Dylan once more on 1997’s Time Out of Mind. Oh Mercy was a journey into the night, assembled in humble conditions. “Even though I had all the rooms padded up and ready for blast off, we just made the whole record in the kitchen. Pretty much did the whole record right next to the coffee machine.” The work is serious and complex, funky and ambient in different breaths. “I reassured Bob I was not about to rest until we had a masterpiece.” He thinks that for all its ambiguity, they got where they were going. “I believe we made a masterpiece of sorts.” words/c depasquale

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