Hot Take on Hard Rain

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I don’t know, guys. For such a lauded live album, I’ve been having trouble getting into this one. I tried it while catching up on email, tried it while on a walkabout for afternoon coffee, tried it while folding the laundry. All the while I thought its upsides would sink in, but they haven’t. With a couple brief exceptions, to my mind, the studio versions of these songs far surpass these live takes. “One too Many Mornings” is one of those exceptions. The live version benefits from the energy Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Review pump like compressed air into the music. But most the time, that energy bursts through the cracks in the songs, revealing any weaknesses, especially the shortcomings of Dylan’s singing voice.

In the studio, his producers can apply filters and adjust volumes so that Dylan doesn’t have to wail. Live, he strains to be the eye-shadowed rock star on the cover. The nasal flairs are more apparent here than ever.

I’m not saying it’s a bad live album, by any means. Just that the studio versions are better. “Maggie’s Farm” (the live version) features a four-beat pause before the refrain, but I’m pretty fond of the original timing. Another exception is the guitar work from “Shelter from the Storm, in which the band weaves a catchy interplay. But the electrified “You’re a Big Girl Now” can’t help but highlight lyrical duds like, “A change in the weather is always extreme / But what’s the sense in changing horses in midstream?” Hyperbole in passive voice followed by cliche: these are elements a competent studio producer can gloss over by drawing our attention elsewhere.

Don’t get me started on “Idiot Wind.” Again, he botches the words, and the take feels like he never catches the rhythm. As with Nashville Skyline, I’d be pleased to hear any one of these tracks come on in a pool hall, but an honest critical assessment of the work has to stare honestly at the flaws.

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