It’s a travel day. I’m flying to Kansas City, Missouri to score AP essays–topic: English Language–for seven straight days. The company flies in 1500-something English teachers, puts them up in hotels, feeds them three meals a day, and pays $1600+, plus reimbursement for food and transport on travel days. Without any one of these perks, the job wouldn’t be worth it. Pouring over those essays (last year I averaged 100 scored per day, and the guy across the table from me tackled at least five times that total) is miserable work. Just awful. My brain feels like soup at the end of each day. So, although I am looking forward to seeing a couple friends and scarfing down some Kansas City BBQ, this isn’t the most joyous travel day ever. Through security and the boarding, take off and cruising, Dylan’s Oh Mercy is helping me through.
The band on this album is very good, and the producer refrains from tainting the music with synths and splashy snares. Right from “Political World”‘s high-Western guitar loops and thick percussion, rolling together into motion like a freight train, this album contains more complex–and more engrossing–arrangements than those generic backdrops of the previous decade. In fact, we might have to dig all the way back to Planet Waves to find such quality musicianship, such a crisp, competent band. Dylan’s singing, too, seems to have improved. He takes his time here, hitting the notes on folksy melodies like “Where Teardrops Fall” and “Ring Them Bells.” On the sneering rock songs, too, such as “Everything Is Broken” and “What Was It You Wanted?,” he opts for the emotive impact of direct and simple delivery rather than pushing his voice behind its capabilities. Harmonizing and songwriting with the Traveling Wilburys has, I’m assuming, kicked Dylan back into gear.
The lyrics throughout Oh Mercy, too, are mostly thoughtful and challenging. “Everything’s Broken” runs the gamut between existential impermanence and the flimsiness of the tools in your junk drawer. “Broken dishes, broken pots / Streets are filled with broken hearts.” “Man in the Long Black Coat,” with its swampy acoustics, seems a counterpoint to the standard “Long Black Veil,” and further elaborates on the Dylan’s moral universe: “Preacher was talking from the sermon he gave / He said every man’s conscience is vile and depraved.” Coming from the preacher, this message rings true. But as is so often the case, when Dylan condemns behavior from a prescriptive, authorial voice, things get fishy. “Disease of Conceit” suffers for this folk wisdom: “Steps into your room eats into your soul / Over your senses you have no control / Ain’t nothing too discreet about the disease of conceit.” Sure, those in power can be dangerously conceited, but in and of itself, the conceit articulated here seems to oversimplify the root of human suffering. However, this accusation is acutely Dylanesque. Evil will overcome all assholes seeking power.
Do I get this album? It’s a fine bounce-back effort featuring a handful of memorable and important tracks. Do I need the previous albums? I’m still waiting for an effort equal to Blood on the Tracks, or even Bringing It All Back Home. Do I like it? We’re getting very close to great.