Ranking the 5 Best Songs on ‘Oh Mercy,’ Bob Dylan’s Best 1980s Album

You’ll hear again and again that the 1980s were a bit of a lost decade for Bob Dylan. But even the direst analyses of Dylan’s work from that period (and we’re of the opinion it’s actually quite underrated) usually make an exception for his brilliant 1989 record Oh Mercy.

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The artist collaborated with Daniel Lanois, who was a bit more hands-on than your average Dylan producer, to make the record. Production aside, with Dylan, it’s always all about the songs, and he delivered some killers on this record. Here are the five best from Oh Mercy.

5. “Everything Is Broken”

Oh Mercy is as ballad-heavy as any Dylan record that you’ll ever hear, as most of the tempos saunter along in stately fashion to play up the emotions in the lyrics. But there are a few rippers on there as well, including the effective opener “Political World” and this one, which highlights the chemistry of the band Dylan and Lanois assembled. It benefits from an insinuating bass line from Tony Hall and delivers a churning groove. With a title like “Everything Is Broken,” you expect a dirge, but instead you get a rollicking reading of all the world’s ills.

4. “Shooting Star”

The album’s final track is a dusky beauty about missed opportunities and regrets. Dylan’s narrator looks to the skies throughout the song, and every celestial movement conjures something else that just eluded him. After the verses are mostly contained to very short lines, Dylan cuts loose in the middle eight with some wordy lines whose omens and portents seem to hearken back to the “Born Again” days. But it’s only temporary, as his voice gets a bit more dejected in the final verse, and he watches that “Shooting Star” slip away. Just an utterly lovely song.

3. “Man in the Long Black Coat”

Dylan is working on a very high level on this ominous track, yet all the while making it look pretty easy. He tells the story through images and hearsay, as neither the titular character nor the woman whose life he upends says anything or reveals anything of their inner lives. This is one of the songs on the record where Lanois has the heaviest impact on the recording, but you can’t really throw any shade at the work he does. You can practically feel the swampy heat as you listen. Dylan, meanwhile, sings the stuffing out of this menacing tale.

2. “Most of the Time”

How do you say your heart is broken in song when it’s been said a million times before? Well, Dylan does it here by mostly playing the denial game. The title phrase is simple yet devastatingly effective. Even if he’s being truthful and the majority of his days and nights are free from memories of the girl who left him, you can tell those brief glimpses to which he refers end up doing more than enough damage. Dylan has released more than his share of classic weepers through the years, and “Most of the Time” is as wrenching as any of them.

1. “Ring Them Bells”

With “Ring Them Bells,” Dylan is once again dealing in terminology and allusions he used commonly during his brief period of making religious albums. Here, they’re utilized more to make a generalized point about empathy for those who need it the most. The tenderness in his vocals is as touching as anything you’ll find in his catalog. This is also one of his prettiest songs, as it features a yearning melody that matches the tone of the lyrics. Quite frankly, “Ring Them Bells” is on the short list of the finest things Dylan has ever done.

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Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns

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