Vinyl Corner : Bob Dylan ‘Oh Mercy’

Vinyl Corner is a feature where we take a look at vinyl pressings of various albums and weigh them up to see just how good they sound, how well they’re pressed and what sort of packaging to expect, as well as giving a brief overview of the music itself. Today we’re comparing two versions of Bob Dylan’s excellent 1989 album ‘Oh Mercy’ to see which stands as the best.

The Music

Released in 1989, ‘Oh Mercy’ is an album frequently characterised as Bob Dylan’s return to form after the much dreaded mid-80’s dip that so many long-serving musical legends experienced. In reality such claims are rather unfair on the albums that preceded it – granted, 1986’s ‘Knocked Out Loaded’ and 1988’s ‘Down In The Groove’ are no classics, but nor were they the train-wrecks they were often characterised as. Regardless, there’s no denying that ‘Oh Mercy’ did see Dylan tap into the sort of great creative power he hadn’t fully been in touch with since 1983’s excellent ‘Infidels’ – and it certainly stands as not only a great album in its own right, but also as an important touchstone in Dylan’s mid-era discography. Produced by Daniel Lanois, the album was refreshingly free of the naff synth-pads and garishly gated-drums that had characterised Dylan’s previous few outings, instead opting for a clean, dynamic soundscape of subtle guitars and sighing basses. Dylan’s writing likewise shone in a way it hadn’t for a good few years prior, the album’s gorgeous ‘Most Of The Time’ and ‘Ring Them Bells’ standing as not just some of his best songs in a decade but some of the most moving of his career.

The Pressing:

We’re going to compare an original UK 1989 pressing with the 2012 Music On Vinyl reissue to see which stands as the definitive way to hear the album. Naturally, our original copy is near enough thirty years old, so comparisons between the surface noise of both issues would be unfair – instead we’re going to focus on the sonics and mastering. We recorded playback on both and have put them side by side to compare the mastering between the two – see the image below for a visual representation of what we’re about to cover. Lanois‘ production of the album has always been nuanced and the mastering respects this on both issues with a dynamic soundscape that has pronounced peaks and troughs. To our surprise, it turns out that the 2012 Music On Vinyl reissue is actually slightly more dynamic than the original pressing, with more pronounced volume shifts – however both sound excellent and the difference between the two pressings from a sonic perspective is relatively minimal.

The waveform at the top is the Music On Vinyl reissue, the bottom is the CBS original. Both are similar but note slight differences, particularly in the quieter, more dynamic tracks.

The original pressing is on unsurprisingly lightweight vinyl; the late ’80s were a time of thin records and by-and-large this was actually fine because sound quality and presence were not impacted, which is the case here where the original pressing sounds great. The Music On Vinyl reissue is on 180 gram vinyl – by our guess perhaps 60 to 80 grams more than the original pressing. One surprising difference between the two pressings is the groove width. Although both records contain the same music and have the same runtime, the deadwax runout grooves are much, much larger on the reissue; meaning that the grooves themselves are closer together on the reissue. This may well have contributed to the slightly different sonics heard on the reissue. The original pressing is more bass heavy than the reissue, Dylan’s vocals also having a punchy quality to them that’s dulled slightly on the reissue. The Music On Vinyl version overall has a brighter soundstage and arguably a more balanced overall presence, with no one instrument standing out and the guitar having subtly sharper sound. Differences between the two issues are definitely subtle and most listeners, apart from the most ardent of audiophiles, would be unlikely to notice the differences unless playing digitized files side by side. Overall we slightly prefer the more balanced sound of the reissue but both sound great and those able to find a clean original would do well to pick that up, especially given that original pressings currently aren’t particularly expensive. The Music On Vinyl reissue is one we really recommend though, as playback is excellent (finding an original with an equivalent lack of surface noise may be time consuming) and the mastering subtle and confident.

The Packaging:

Packaging and presentation is very similar between the two issues, but with some key differences. Much like the lightweight record, the sleeve of the original pressing is printed on fairly thin card and doesn’t have much weight behind it. It’s hardly an issue as print quality is great and the spine looks lovely but the heavier card of the reissue (which, by modern standards is roughly midweight) certainly means that the sleeve feels sturdier than the original. Print quality is likewise excellent on the reissue and, instead of shrinkwrap, new copies come in a resealable plastic sleeve that offers some protection for those who haven’t invested in plastic sleeves. The original pressing includes an art inner sleeve printed on fairly thin paper – a nice inclusion but certainly not the sort of thing you’ll want to leave the record in. The reissue reproduces the same insert but instead of an inner sleeve, it’s now simply a double sided insert, with the record in a polylined generic sleeve. Although neither are packaged in unusually extravagant form, the Music On Vinyl reissue is the clear winner here and is a nicely presented version of the album.

Final Thoughts:

‘Oh Mercy’ is a great album and even if it’s not quite top-tier Dylan, it comes highly recommended to those looking to explore his discography past the legendary essentials. A nice condition original pressing is certainly a worthwhile option here but preferable is the 2012 Music On Vinyl version, a great reissue that makes some subtle improvements over the original.