Produced by Daniel Lanois, critics hailed the record as a triumph for Dylan, after a string of poorly-reviewed albums. Oh Mercy gave Dylan his best chart showing in years: it reached #30 on the Billboard charts in the US and #6 in the UK.
Dylan's sudden rush of inspiration did not stop there. Days later (during the first week of 1988), he wrote verses for a second song, "What Good Am I?", over the course of one evening in a small art studio located on his property. The next day, he wrote another called "Dignity". Unlike his previous two songs, "Dignity" was written with the rhythm, tempo, and melody all in Dylan's head. Completed over the course of the entire afternoon and evening, Dylan composed the song after hearing of Pete Maravich's death on the morning news. Dylan had seen the basketball legend play in an NBA game years before and was saddened by his passing.
Over the next month or so, Dylan composed many more songs (20 by his estimate), including "Everything Is Broken", "Disease of Conceit", and "What Was It You Wanted?" Melodies were written for only a minority of them, and all of them were stored in a drawer in his home.
In the meantime, Dylan's injury was healing quite well, and he was encouraged by his doctor to play guitar again, as such activity was needed to stretch out his hand. Dylan began playing concerts again soon after his recovery, but for the most part, his songwriting ceased once his hand had healed.
As Clinton Heylin reports, while promoting The Traveling Wilburys in the fall of 1988, George Harrison discussed some of Dylan's upcoming work. "Harrison enthused about Dylan's new songs...informing a skeptical world that the experience of recording the Wilburys had given him the urge to write again."
Harrison wasn't the only peer to receive a preview of Dylan's next album, but he was possibly the first to mention it to the press. Earlier that year, Bono, lead singer of U2, paid Dylan a friendly 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 urged him to record the songs, but Dylan was reluctant because he had a difficult time recording his last few records.
In an interview taken in 1989, Dylan said, "Bono...suggested that Daniel [Lanois] could really record them right. Daniel came to see me when we were playing in New Orleans last year and...we hit it off. He had an understanding of what my music was all about. It’s very hard to find a producer that can play...and [still] knows how to record with modern facilities. For me, that was lacking (in) the past."
Daniel Lanois was best-known for high-profile projects like Peter Gabriel's So and U2's The Joshua Tree. He even produced the self-titled debut of Dylan's one-time collaborator, Robbie Robertson. Dylan would first meet Lanois in September 1988, during a stop on the Never Ending Tour. Lanois was producing a session for The Neville Brothers, who were in the middle of recording Yellow Moon. (Two vintage Dylan compositions, "Ballad of Hollis Brown" and "With God on Our Side", would be included on Yellow Moon.) Held in a portable studio set up in an old colonial house in New Orleans, the session gave Dylan a firsthand look at what it would be like to work with Lanois. Dylan already liked the idea of recording in New Orleans, with its rich history in popular music, and witnessing the relaxed but professional nature of Lanois's work ethic persuaded Dylan to hire him as producer.
Six months later, Dylan began holding sessions, first at a house in Emlah Court, then to 1305 Soniat Street where they spent the bulk of their time. "We found an empty turn-of-the-century apartment building — a five-story building, a fantastic place", recalls Lanois. "It had a bordello-ish overtone. We essentially turned the control room into a swamp...we had moss all over the place and stuffed animals and alligator heads...On the record there's not really the obvious presence of synthesizers, just straight-ahead drums and bass and guitars, yet there's this blazing strangeness around it."
Dylan didn't want to use his touring band so Lanois recruited a number of local musicians for these sessions, including guitarists Mason Ruffner and Brian Stoltz, bassist Tony Hall, and drummer Willie Green, all of whom were very accessible. However, much of the activity revolved around three performers: Dylan, Lanois, and engineer Malcolm Burn. Lanois himself played dobro, lap steel, guitar, and even omnichord throughout the sessions. Burn occasionally handled tambourine, keyboards, and bass, and he was later given co-production credit. By running the sessions this way, Dylan was freed from a demanding schedule. "Daniel just allowed the record to take place any old time, day or night. You don't have to walk through secretaries, pinball machines and managers and hangers-on in the lobby and parking lots and elevators and arctic temperatures", Dylan said.
"With all records there comes a time when people get a little bit lazy, because it's a tiring and unnatural process", Lanois said. "There came a time with Bob Dylan when I felt he fell into old habits - 'Get somebody else to play on it,' he'd say, or 'just hire somebody,' when really he should have been playing the parts. And I made it clear to him that we weren't going to fly anybody in, and we weren't going to have session players play these parts. The parts would be played by the people in the room, by himself, by myself, by the engineer Malcolm Burn, by the neighborhood guys that we'd chosen to be on the record. It was not going to be a studio record. He was going to play the parts, and if they were a little sloppy they would be accepted that way."
As Dylan would later detail in his autobiography, the sessions were very difficult. The first day was spent recording "Political World", which Lanois pushed in a 'funky' direction. Dylan did not like the arrangement, and the next day, he discovered that Lanois and the others had continued working on "Political World" even after he left. The mix and overdubs finished in Dylan's absence were not to his liking, and his disappointment grew as they continued to experiment with the arrangement and the mix. Dylan felt the whole process was more difficult than it should be and that Lanois was not communicating very well; at one point, Lanois destroyed a dobro in a fit of rage.
Eventually, "Political World" was set aside and the group focused on another song, "Most of the Time", which still needed a melody. They managed to compose one fairly quickly, but as work continued, Dylan became more dissatisfied with the results.
They moved on to the next song, "Dignity", which was recorded with Dylan, Stoltz, and Green. Though they managed to complete a polished performance, Lanois suggested something more ambitious with a Cajun band. Curious to see what Lanois had in mind, Dylan agreed to recut the song. The next evening, a session was held with Rockin' Dopsie and His Cajun Band, but the results were disastrous. The group experimented with different keys and tempos, but according to Dylan, everyone was frustrated with the results. Dylan still preferred the original version recorded the previous day, but it wasn't considered finished by Dylan or Lanois. (In his autobiography, Dylan refers to the original version as a "demo".) As the session continued into the early morning hours, the group gave up and began playing old standards like "Jambalaya", "Cheatin' Heart", and "There Stands the Glass". It was during this time that Dylan tried out another new song, "Where Teardrops Fall". "I showed it quickly to Dopsie and we recorded it", Dylan later wrote. "Took about five minutes and it wasn't rehearsed."
The next day, they listened to every take of "Dignity" recorded with Dopsie and his band, and all of them were rejected. "Whatever promise Dan had seen in the song was beaten into a bloody mess", Dylan recalled. "Where we had started from, we'd never gotten back to, a fishing expedition gone nowhere. In no take did we ever turn back the clock. We just kept winding it. Every take another ball of confusion."
However, Dylan was struck by their recording of "Where Teardrops Fall", and even though Lanois insisted on recutting it (which they did), Dylan eventually went back to the original version and used it for the album. In the meantime, "Dignity" was set aside, never to be revisited for the remainder of the sessions.
The next song was "Series of Dreams", and "although Lanois liked the song, he liked the bridge better, wanted the whole song to be like that", wrote Dylan. "I knew what he meant, but it just couldn't be done. Though I thought about it for a second, thinking that I could probably start with the bridge as the main part and use the main part as the bridge...the idea didn't amount to much and thinking about the song this way wasn't healthy. I felt like it was fine the way it was — didn't want to lose myself in thinking too much about changing it." Lanois would continue to experiment with the song, but Dylan ultimately left it off the album.
Other songs were also finished with compromises; Dylan wasn't satisfied with the melody on "What Good Am I?" and felt the tempo was too slow, while Lanois wasn't enthusiastic about "Everything Is Broken" , believing it to be an insignificant song.
"I wasn't looking to express myself in any kind of new way", Dylan would later write. "All my ways were intact and had been for years. There wasn't much chance in changing now. I didn't need to climb the next mountain. If anything, what I wanted to do was to secure the place where I was at. I wasn't sure Lanois understood that. I guess I never made it plain, couldn't put it in so many words."
Despite the arguments with Lanois, Dylan was genuinely pleased with the production, and not everything was recorded with difficulty. "Ring Them Bells" was finished quickly with ease, and Dylan was very happy with the result.
During the course of the sessions, Dylan would also write two more songs, "Shooting Star" and "Man in the Long Black Coat"; he finished both after a brief respite with his wife outside of New Orleans and would include both on the album.
Roughly fourteen or fifteen songs were recorded at these sessions, with many of the basic tracks cut live to tape. One major exception was the lead vocals; all but two songs had their live vocals replaced by overdubs accommodating new lyrics written for the same songs.
In regard to "Everything Is Broken", Dylan wrote, "Danny didn't have to swamp it up too much, it was already swamped up pretty good when it came to him. Critics usually didn't like a song like this coming out of me because it didn't seem to be autobiographical. Maybe not, but the stuff I write does come from an autobiographical place." A propulsive, riff-driven number, it was the first single issued from Oh Mercy.
A ballad with an almost hymnal poise to it, "Ring Them Bells" is one of the more celebrated tracks on Oh Mercy, and also where Lanois' production is at its most subtle and restrained. The song seems to feature some spiritual overtones, opening with the verse, "Ring them bells ye heathen/From the city that dreams/Ring them bells from the sanctuaries/Cross the valleys and streams."
"Ring Them Bells" was also one of two songs that was released with its live vocals intact. The other song was "Man in the Long Black Coat", sequenced right after "Ring Them Bells".
"One of my favorites is 'Man in the Long Black Coat,' which was written in the studio, and recorded in one take", recalls Lanois. Praised by Heylin as a "powerful reinterpretation of the 'Daemon Lover' motif", "Man in the Long Black Coat" also contains some prominent use of apocalyptic imagery, evoking a place where the "water is high" and "tree trunks uprooted". In his own assessment of "Man in the Long Black Coat", Dylan wrote that "in some kind of weird way, I thought of it as my 'I Walk the Line,' a song I'd always considered to be up there at the top, one of the most mysterious and revolutionary of all time, a song that makes an attack on your most vulnerable spots, sharp words from a master". Supporters and critics alike have called "Man in the Long Black Coat" one of the strongest tracks on Oh Mercy.
The second half of Oh Mercy is notable for its sustained moodiness and resignation, often in relation to romantic dissolution. This is immediately apparent on the atmospheric "Most of the Time", which features the richest, most ambitious production on the entire album. Described as "magisterial" by Allan Jones of Melody Maker, the narrator in "Most of the Time" sings of an estranged lover whom the narrator can't quite shake from his memories. The song addresses an irreconcilable, personal relationship, and this theme would continue through "What Good Am I?", a frank look at the narrator's moral worth, and "What Was It You Wanted".
Though he's still uncertain of its origins, in his autobiography Dylan does write that "Disease of Conceit" may have been inspired by the defrocking of Jimmy Swaggart.
The album closes with "Shooting Star", a wistful ballad of remembrance. The words occasionally evoke some portentous imagery ("the last fire truck from hell goes rollin' by"), but it ends the album on a soft, romantic note.
One of Dylan's most ambitious compositions, "Series of Dreams" is given a tumultuous production from Daniel Lanois. The lyrics are fairly straightforward, giving a literal description of the turmoil encountered by the narrator during a "series of dreams." However, the descriptions quickly unfold into a set of highly evocative verses.
During a Sound Opinions interview broadcast on Chicago FM radio, Lanois told Chicago Tribune critic Greg Kot that "Series of Dreams" was his pick for the opening track, but ultimately, the final decision was Dylan's. NPR's Tim Riley would echo these sentiments, writing that "'Series of Dreams' should have been the working title song to Oh Mercy, not a leftover pendant."
Another outtake, "Dignity", was one of the first songs written for Oh Mercy. Dylan viewed "Dignity" as a strong contender for the album, and an extensive amount of work was done on it. However, Dylan was dissatisfied with the recorded results, resulting in his decision to omit it.
Easily the two most celebrated outtakes from Oh Mercy's sessions, Dylan would not only perform "Dignity" and "Series of Dreams" live, he'd eventually issue them on official releases. "Series of Dreams" was the final track on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991, and it was later included on 1994's Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Volume 3. "Dignity" was performed live during a 1994 appearance on MTV Unplugged, and the same performance was later issued on the accompanying album. A radically remixed version of "Dignity" featuring new overdubs was released on Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Volume 3, while the original Lanois production would not see release until the soundtrack album of the television show, Touched by an Angel.
Listed as "Broken Days/Three of Us" on the track sheets, the original version of "Everything Is Broken" was briefly issued on-line as an exclusive download on Apple Computer's iTunes music store. Described by Heylin as an "evocation of a fragmented relationship", the lyrics were later rewritten and overdubbed with new vocals and an additional guitar part.
Two more outtakes, "Born In Time" and "God Knows", were set aside and later re-written and re-recorded for Dylan's next album, Under the Red Sky. "The Oh Mercy outtake of 'Born In Time' was one of those Dylan performances that so surrendered itself to the moment that to decry the lyrical slips would be to mock sincerity itself", wrote an enamored Heylin.
Oh Mercy's unique production was unlike anything ever released on a Dylan record, and it drew praise from a majority of critics. Robert Christgau of The Village Voice wrote, "Daniel Lanois's understated care and easy beat suit [Dylan's] casual ways, and three or four songs might sound like something late at night on the radio, or after the great flood. All are modest and tuneful enough to make you forgive 'Disease of Conceit,' which is neither."
But as Heylin notes, "Though many a critic who had despaired at the sound of Dylan's more recent albums enthused about the sound on Oh Mercy, it was evident that rock music's foremost lyric writer had also rediscovered his previous flair with words."
Critic Bill Wyman even went so far as to criticize the production in praising the songs. "Taken over by Daniel Lanois, master of a shimmering and distinctive electronically processed guitar sound...[the album] is overdone", writes Wyman. "It's irritating to hear Dylan's songs so manipulated, but there are sufficient nice tracks - "Most of the Time", "Shooting Star", both simple and direct, among them — to make this by far the most coherent and listenable collection of his own songs Dylan has released since Desire."
Though it did not enter Billboard's Top 20, Oh Mercy remained a consistent seller, enough to be considered a modest commercial success.
By the end of the year, Dylan would begin planning his next album, to be produced by Don and David Was of Was (Not Was), using the Oh Mercy outtake "God Knows" as a starting point.