On this day in 1989, Bob Dylan recorded the first sessions for the album Oh Mercy at The Studio, New Orleans, Louisiana. Dylan's 26th studio album, released by Columbia Records in September 1989, was produced by Daniel Lanois.
Dylan’s previous album, Down In The Groove, released a year earlier, had seen disappointing sales (peaking at No. 61 in the US and No. 32 in the UK), along with unanimous negative reviews. After 25 years of releasing records, Dylan’s sales were not good. It appeared that America’s finest singer/songwriter had hit a creative slump. The times were indeed a-changin'.
In late 1987, Bob was recovering from a hand injury and at home wrote "Political World," his first new song in a long time. The singer then had a rush of inspiration and during the first few weeks of 1988 wrote “Dignity,” “Everything Is Broken,” and ‘What Good Am I.” By the second month of the year, Dylan had over 20 new songs. With his hand injury still healing, he stored all the new songs in a drawer.
In the spring of '88, during a US tour with his group U2, Bono paid Dylan a visit at his home. When he asked Dylan if he had written any new songs, Dylan showed him the ones stored in his drawer. Bono enthused about them and told Dylan he had to get back in the studio and start recording. The Irish singer also suggested working with Canadian producer and Grammy award winner Daniel Lanois, who had produced U2’s last two studio albums, The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree. Bob knew of Lanois, who had also worked with his one-time collaborator, Robbie Robertson, on his solo album. (If you’ve never heard it, check out Lanois’ 1989 solo effort Acadie).
Dylan decided to hire Lanois and sessions started later in the year in New Orleans. Dylan didn’t want to use his tour band for these sessions so local musicians were hired including guitarists Mason Ruffner and Brian Stoltz, bassist Tony Hall, and drummer Willie Green as well as Lanois himself who played lap steel, dobro and guitar.
Dylan later stated in his autobiography that the sessions were at times very difficult. Bob would lay down a new take of a song and then leave the studio while the producer and band would continue to work on it. Returning to the studio, Dylan was not always happy with the results.
Despite all this, something magical happened during these sessions as the finished album proves. "Ring Them Bells," "Political World" (which finds him once again in protest mode), "Where Teardrops Fall," and “Everything Is Broken” (with its wonderful blues shuffle and blues harmonica) all showed Dylan was well and truly back on form.
The atmospheric production gave the album an edge, and Bob seemed to have been rejuvenated; maybe working with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne in the Traveling Wilburys had helped him turn a corner. Whatever the reason, America’s finest singer/songwriter was back.
When released, it was hailed by critics as a triumph, and the fans agreed. Oh Mercy gave Dylan his best chart showing in years, reaching No. 30 on the Billboard charts in the United States and No. 6 in the UK.
Very few musician have influenced the music and the culture of their times as Bob Dylan has and every artist experiences highs and lows during his or her career — the Rolling Stones, Springsteen, Lennon, McCartney... everyone. Oh Mercy gave Dylan and his fans a new lease on life and saw Bob exiting the '80s on a high point. In my opinion, it is his least appreciated classic and at times points to what were to become some of his finest albums: 2006’s Modern Times and 2009’s Together Through Life.