Like all public figures, Bob Dylan is as much prisoner as master of his own persona. What distinguishes Dylan is that he has recognized that paradox with more probity than anybody else in rock. It’s been central to his work since the day he arrived in Greenwich Village imitating Woody Guthrie and emulating Elvis Presley. As Ellen Willis pointed out nine years ago, celebrity is what Dylan’s art is about.
As pop’s demigod, Dylan is not just the processor but the product of our fantasies. We can make and have made of him anything we want: folk balladeer, misogynist, political pamphleteer, poet, romantic, rock aristocrat, mystic, poetaster. The list is infinite. But the great irony of Dylan’s career is that his very elusiveness, his ability to remain one step ahead of the clutches of an audience (and critics) who would define him, has created the most lasting persona of all: the grandmaster of masks, the performer in complete command of his public fate. According to the new mythology, Dylan is not John Wesley Harding (he’s been known to make foolish moves), but the Jack of Hearts (“There’s no actor better . . .”).
Because the actions of American heroes are not allowed to be random, why becomes as important as what. This is particularly true when Dylan fails. To say then that Hard Rain is Dylan’s least accessible, most chaotic and contemptuous album since Self Portrait is not enough. It doesn’t explain why Dylan has made an album which demystifies the Rolling Thunder Revue instead of memorializing it.
The album is an enigma. There is no discernible reason why it’s not a double set. Consisting of nine songs (four of which come from Dylan’s TV special), Hard Rain ignores many of the songs most strongly associated with the Revue (“Just like a Woman,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “Sara,” among others). It’s atrociously recorded. Dylan’s voice is mixed so disproportionately high that the band sounds like they’re performing on a different stage. The effect is the aural equivalent of the close-ups on the television show: stringent domination. The album gives little sense of a live performance. The inclusion of applause and shouts by the audience is so random that it seems like an afterthought. Most of the arrangements are cut from the same monotonous cloth of stop-and-go, rise-and-fall rhythms.
Despite all of this, Hard Rain is not an abject failure. The second side works as a piece, a guided tour through love in ruins. The rawness which leads to havoc and tedium on the first side (particularly “Maggie’s Farm” and “Memphis Blues Again”) transforms “Shelter from the Storm” into a slashing roughneck rocker. Once again, Dylan is using violence to pry open his songs. The paranoid eruption of “Idiot Wind,” which seemed out of context in the reflective atmosphere of Blood on the Tracks, fits perfectly within the psychodrama of Hard Rain.
But Hard Rain is problematic precisely because it is psychodrama of the most solipsistic sort. The album works only in terms of Dylan’s celebrity. It’s a revisionist critique on his own past. He is not so much reinterpreting his work as blowing it apart. How else can one explain throwing away the most crucial and moving line of “You’re a Big Girl Now” (“I can change I swear”) or excising three verses of “Memphis Blues Again”? The album is a ferocious attack on sentimentality, an insistence that his songs aren’t as sacred as his audience believes. Dylan’s voice is like shrapnel shredding everything in its path. There’s no subtlety here, no nuance, just attack. “Lay Lady Lay” is no longer a request, but a demand. Mostly his voice pushes the songs past recognition, beyond interpretation.
Dylan has always used his concerts (as recorded on the bootleg from the Royal Albert Hall concert and Before the Flood) to rework and re-create his past. These records stand as landmarks of the battles he has waged against the expectations of his audience. But the music on Hard Rain offers neither the demonic fury of the Royal Albert Hall bootleg nor the repressed tension of Before the Flood. The band behaves more like bump-’em cars colliding in muddled confusion than jacked-up hot rods roaring down a track. Melody is all but dismissed, the backup vocals haphazard, the solos inconsequential. So while Hard Rain may be a fascinating intellectual conundrum, its emotional impact is almost nil.
Dylan is an instinctive artist. His studio albums have never been elaborately crafted, painstaking efforts. Instead they have been more like live performances in which he has been concerned with capturing the moment. In this sense, Dylan is a true rock & roll primitivist, unencumbered by the civilizing dictates of self-consciousness, released from the necessity of asking why and what he is producing. This is not to imply that his work is simple — on the contrary, the emotions, forms and masks are extraordinarily sophisticated. Rather, he is a naif, so self-absorbed he believes that everything he does is of interest. Like a true primitive, Dylan’s work functions as a direct megaphone to himself. The result has been some of the most brilliant art that popular culture in this country has ever produced. But it also means that Dylan is at once his own best and worst critic. Hard Rain is the product of the latter.