The 80s had been rough for Dylan — the decade certainly goes down as his most uneven and uninspired. Apart from Infidels and Empire Burlesque (two albums that themselves are far from unanimously praised), he released arguably his four weakest albums and threw in two lackluster live albums to boot.
So by 1989, the critical community and even Dylan’s fans were wondering if it was time to write him off or if he might still have something relevant, and resonant, in him.
The answer came in the form of a dark, moody collection recorded in magically murky New Orleans — Oh Mercy, for my money the best thing he’d done since 1976’s Desire.
The difficult recording process for Oh Mercy is detailed in Chronicle, Vol. 1. Producer extraordinaire Daniel Lanois, recommended to Dylan by Bono (Lanois produced U2’s The Joshua Tree, among many other classics), pushed Dylan in a way he wasn’t used to. He refused to let Dylan bring in hired hands to fill in sections of the album and insisted on multiple takes of in many different styles in order to find the right fit.
Perhaps that was just the kick in the pants Dylan needed. Oh Mercy was his best sounding album in years — maybe ever. In fact, one knock on it is that it’s too well-produced, too slick a release for a rootsy artist like Dylan. I don’t share that criticism at all. I love the atmospheric production and think Lanois made Dylan’s voice sound better than it had in years.
In addition to the revitalized recording process, Oh Mercy saw Dylan deliver his best batch of songs in a long while. I’ll go into some of them tomorrow. For now, enjoy the softly majestic ‘Ring Them Bells,’ one of many highlights on a wonderful album.
From the city that dreams
Ring them bells from the sanctuaries
’Cross the valleys and streams
For they’re deep and they’re wide
And the world’s on its side
And time is running backwards
And so is the bride
Ring them bells St. Peter
Where the four winds blow
Ring them bells with an iron hand
So the people will know
Oh it’s rush hour now
On the wheel and the plow
And the sun is going down
Upon the sacred cow
Ring them bells Sweet Martha
For the poor man’s son
Ring them bells so the world will know
That God is one
Oh the shepherd is asleep
Where the willows weep
And the mountains are filled
With lost sheep
Ring them bells for the blind and the deaf
Ring them bells for all of us who are left
Ring them bells for the chosen few
Who will judge the many when the game is through
Ring them bells, for the time that flies
For the child that cries
When innocence dies
Ring them bells St. Catherine
From the top of the room
Ring them from the fortress
For the lilies that bloom
Oh the lines are long
And the fighting is strong
And they’re breaking down the distance
Between right and wrong