You, me, the music, and me.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Columbia OC 45281 (1989)

Most people who've seen the 2003 film Masked and Anonymous are probably glad that Bob Dylan became a singer/songwriter instead of a filmmaker. Co-written by Dylan under the pseudonym "Sergei Petrov", the movie feels like one of those long, epic-length song-saga thingies that he tosses out every so often (except it's almost two hours long and has Luke Wilson in it). The tale of a jailed rocker named Jack Fate (played by Dylan) being freed to play a benefit concert in some unnamed, war-ravaged country, it's mostly a mess, but it does contain some interesting insights into Dylan's thoughts and feelings on the state of the world, both political and personal. It's fun to watch Dylan listen to the actors speak words that are unmistakeably his own back to him. Many felt, however, that the film was too vague and unfocussed; perhaps not coincidentally, the same criticism gets aimed at a lot of Dylan's post-sixties musical catalogue.

Oh Mercy feels like it takes place in the imaginary country in which the movie's story is based, and while some of the songs' subjects are not explicitly defined either, the vagueness works better on record than on film. The characters on the record (this time all speaking in Dylan's voice) sound chased, pursued, hounded by demons that they can't see; it's as if they took a brief minute to sit down, explain what has happened to them or what they are feeling, and then they're off again. Too afraid to name names or be specific, they speak their piece and get outta there.

The production on the album is rich yet spare; producer Daniel Lanois uses guitars and keyboards with just the right mixture of lushness and grit, and the percussion is mostly muted. "Political World" is an upbeat, one-chord rocker that builds in intensity as the song progresses, and "Ring Them Bells" and "Man in the Long Black Coat" are drumless, atmospheric ballads. "Most of the Time" and "What Good Am I?" showcase Dylan's skill at love-gone-wrong songs; he can make self-pity sound elegiac without sounding morose. "Disease of Conceit" is a memorable, almost humourous sermon, with Dylan singing the title so quickly it comes out as "diseasaconceeeee".

Dylan doesn't need the medium of film to bring his cinematic concepts to life; if you want proof, skip the movie and hunt this record down. Oh Mercy won't replace any of his sixties albums, but it's a worthwhile trip into Dylan country.


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