I was in my mid-teens when “Saved” was released. I’d just begun to discover Bob Dylan’s music around then but, to be honest, I was far more interested in albums like “The Times They Are A-Changin'” than “Saved” or “Slow Train Coming”. I’d caught on to the singles from “Street Legal” via Annie Nightingale’s radio show but really nothing else of his contemporary work was even on my radar. From “…Changin'”, I made the predictable moves to “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde” and for me Dylan was an interesting master songwriter from the 1960s.
I could be seen around college with a copy of “Writings and Drawings” under my arm but even in that my interest faded after the “John Wesley Harding” album.
And then something very peculiar happened. I found myself, a son of a very working class, socialist coal-mining family, reading the Bible and then becoming a convert to Christianity. I wasn’t even then a church-goer and so I needed to find support for my new formed faith in books, music, literature and poetry. “Saved” went from being an album I ignored to something I was wearing out the grooves on and a favourite album.
Life took me down diverse paths. I spent a good few years writing for a living and then now whilst still writing, I have become a pastor with theology qualifications, and head of an unusual little church in London with a bent towards art and creativity.
Meanwhile, “Saved” is one of those albums that routinely turns up in polls of people’s worst 5 Bob Dylan albums, and is regarded as the regrettable follow-up to “Slow Train Coming”. It is caricatured as being badly produced and it is often said that Dylan should have withdrawn it and replaced it with a live album from his gospel tours. In short, it is part of Dylan’s short-lived “Born-Again Christian phase” (more on this in a subsequent article) and is best forgotten and ignored.
So now some 35/36 years after its release, it is time for this writer to reassess his own personal view of it. Was my enthusiasm for it in the early-80s part of a post-conversion rush (I’m not exactly known for listening to much Christian music, whatever that is) or is it a valid, well-written piece of gospel music that fits well into its genre – or something in between.
I’ve been spending quite a long time with the record using the remastered cd version that is found in the Japanese release and the Bob Dylan Complete Album Collection Volume 1. Let’s see where I ended up.
The album opens with a guitar lick and Dylan’s vocal going into “A Satisfied Mind” on which he is joined by the chorus of black female vocals which accompany most of his singing both on record and in live performance for the next decade. It is very much a table-setter and tells you where the artist intends to go with his album. He wants to persuade you that he is satisfied and happy with the way he has chosen to live his life and will allow the album to move into a set of songs that are gospel-music in flavour, devotional in content, deeply personal, biblical and theological.
One of the peculiarities of the reviews that this record has received over the years is that it is often seen as being a record that harps and warns and threatens the non-believer. I can’t really see that it does this and I think in order to establish that it doesn’t we only have to compare it with its predecessor “Slow Train Coming”. “Slow Train” is a fine record but in “When He Returns”, “Slow Train” and “When You Gonna Wake Up”. the number of songs that are direct challenges to non-believers out-number those that are found here. The tone as I have already indicated (and will no doubt go onto bore the reader with) is largely gentle and worshipful. Now we may struggle to get into Dylan’s world and head during this period of his life but that is more the listener’s problem than the writer and musician.
The album is also much more than just words and here much more than on “Slow Train Coming”, Dylan has opted for the musical style which is most readily associated with those words – the music of the black gospel churches. It is driven by Spooner Oldham on organ and keyboards along with Terry Young who also provides keyboards and sings. Those who say it is badly produced have to sit back and listen becuase what I hear is mostly crisp and multi-layered. It is not “Slow Train Coming, not even near. And it is not “Shot of Love”. And those who want to see three albums as a set which are separate from connections with the rest of Dylan’s career, the aforementioned “phase”, have far bigger gaps in their logic to fill than I could.
“Slow Train Coming” was driven by Mark Knopfler’s guitar and had a sound of Dire Straits which in less than five years was going to sweep across the world. The songs from that album when presented in concert during the 1979/81 period became more like the “Saved” sound, more like the music of the church, meeting with the music of the soul world and the rock venue and all being sung by a white man who sounded nothing like Al Green or Sam Cooke and this is a difficult challenge for the listener – but it doesn’t make the challenge any less worth pursuing.
The title track opens with a profoundly theological statement which encapsulates more biblical ideas about redemption in one verse than any comparable gospel song I can think of:
“I was blinded by the devil, born already ruined
Stone-cold dead as I stepped out of the womb
By His grace I have been touched, by His word I have been healed
By His hand I’ve been delivered, by His spirit I’ve been sealed
I’ve been saved by the blood of the Lamb”
The song is a torrent of enthusiasm and energy which if it fails to capture entirely the spirit of some of the live performances of the song comes as close as may have been possible within the confines of the recording studio.
“Covenant Woman” is this album’s “Precious Angel” and has that marvellous devotional sense that I have already spoken of. But when we listen to this in 2016, our hearing can’t help but be tinged by sadness because we know that the hopes of an author are not always realised:
“You know that we are strangers in a land we’re passing through
I’ll always be right by your side, I’ve got a covenant too.”
Sometimes, life takes us in ways we do not expect and there is a deep poignancy about this.
Coming back to arrangements, this is one of many tracks on the album when the keyboards, Fred Tackett’s guitar and Tim Drummond’s bass swirl around each other to form a rich musical warp-and-weft.
In a similar musical vein but with the backing vocals of Clydie King, Regina Havis and Mona Lisa Young kicking back in to support Bob but now in a much gentler tone on “What Can I Do For You?”. This is a love song but a love song to God rather than to a woman and it has a beauty that is suitable to its subject. It also contains a harmonica solo which I would argue is perhaps the best in any recording of Dylan’s I have heard. It is also a song of profound humility which runs in the face of those who found the album a religious rant by someone setting themselves up as better than his audience:
“Well, I don’t deserve it….”
Track 5 and the closer of side 1 of the original album is “Solid Rock” which Dylan, contrary to those who would suggest that he has left behind the beliefs he expressed on this record, would continue to revisit in concert more than 20 years later. It is the one song on the album in which I think the producers, Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett, fail to get the sense of the song right. It is just a little too busy as the musician and vocalists throw in everything including the proverbial kitchen sink as they go hell-for-leather in the energetic attempt to get it right. I wonder how many takes there were and just how much deliberation on which one to put on the final recording and release.
One song which has usually escaped the scourging of the critics is “Pressing On” which is track 6 and the opener of side 2 of the record. Again, this is a deeply humble and reverential song but one which perhaps expresses best the difficult experience of becoming a famous-man-of-faith (a role that Dylan probably never wanted) and a so-called spokesman for a generation taking up a new philosophical position:
“Many try to stop me, shake me up in my mind
Say, “Prove to me that He is Lord, show me a sign”
What kind of sign they need when it all come from within
When what’s lost has been found, what’s to come has already been ?”
It is a plaintive and pleading kind of song, despite its apparent confidence, with the combination of piano and female vocals making an attractive combination for those who have tired of the organ sound.
That organ is back for “In the Garden”, Dylan’s telling of the Easter story of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and resurrection. For my money, this song, along with “What Can I Do For You” and the still-to-come “Saving Grace” do battle to be my favourite on the album.
The keyboard, the lead vocal and the backing vocals are redolent with affirmation and belief and I can’t see how this could have been recorded any better whether in the studio or in concert. Half-a-dozen years later, Bob would give this song a prominent role in the live tour which he performed with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on the “True Confessions” show, part of which was released on the official “Hard to Handle” video, which is now sadly out of print. Then, the song was given a deeper bass line and a spoken intro which allowed the singer to explain why Jesus was his hero.
Tom Petty was very positive about being on stage with Dylan as he worked out this song from “Saved” as he revealed in an interview with Bill DeYoung:
BILL DeYOUNG: Bob was out there tonight pulling these Jesus songs out of the hat —
TOM PETTY: And rightfully so!
BILL DeYOUNG: Right after your second set, after Ronnie Wood came out for “Rainy Day Women,” then there was a Jesus song. I could feel the momentum dive.
TOM PETTY: Yeah, but see, you’re still talking about it. You know what, the Beach Boys wouldn’t-a done that. They’ve have probably just steamrollered that baby to the end like Bruce Springsteen. But that’s not what we’re doing. That’s not what this is about. He had something to say at that point. This ain’t show business, man. This ain’t show business. That’s Bob Dylan. He had something to say at that point. He had something to say about Jesus right then. He sang “Like a Rolling Stone,” right? He’d already done that. Listen, man, you gotta dig that there’s a lot of great songs about Jesus. David Lee Roth might not want to do that. But I admire a man that’s confident enough in himself to do that. And I tell you what, nobody left.
MIKE CAMPBELL: He does that on purpose. I know what you mean by momentum. It builds up and it’s boogie till you puke. Bob doesn’t want to boogie till he pukes.
Again, for more than 20 years, this song would continue to keep reappearing in Dylan’s set.
“Saving Grace” is a song which in many ways reflects the kind of ruminations which Dylan explored on “Every Grain of Sand” on the subsequent album “Shot of Love” but whilst there is a flavour of William Blake about that one, this again stands more stridently in the tradition of the church hymnal and contained a few lyrics that your average listener found difficult to swallow:
“There’s only one road and it leads to Calvary
It gets discouraging at times, but I know I’ll make it
By the saving grace that’s over me.”
Dylan surprised his fan-base by making this a most-nights kind of song on his 2005 tour with all those lyrics intact. It is a sweet and graceful number which we will lose if we can get past the exclusive claims of Christianity which were around in the world before “Saving Grace” was written and will continue to be spoken of long after Dylan has gone to meet his Maker.
Last song is “Are You Ready” which is really the only song on the album where Dylan addresses directly those who haven’t accepted the gospel message – everything else is about his own beliefs and devotion. But here he doesn’t neglect something that he thinks is important and he is a little strident for some tastes, if powerful and direct:
“Are you ready for the judgement ?
Are you ready for that terrible swift sword ?
Are you ready for Armageddon ?
Are you ready for the day of the Lord ?”
He doesn’t, however, ask anything of his audience that he is not willing to impose on himself:
“Am I ready to lay down my life for the brethren
And to take up my cross ?
Have I surrended to the will of God
Or am I still acting like the boss ?”
But even here his resoluteness is touched by a sincere pleading and compassion:
“Have you got some unfinished business ?
Is there something holding you back ?
Are you thinking for yourself
Or are you following the pack ?”
Musically, it is not my favourite track on the album. It sounds a little abrasive which adds that sense to the lyrics but in many ways it rounds out the concept of the album which again, perhaps, explains why Dylan has seldom felt the need to re-visit these themes in these kind of gospel songs. He has already said it once and he has never seemed a man to simply retread the same piece of ground pedantically for the sake of it.
The sleeve of the record is not everybody’s favourite but it fits well with the content of the record. Some say that in 1982, Dylan returned to Judaism but the Biblical quote on the inner sleeve suggests we should always expect his New Testament-based beliefs to have a Jewish flavour:
“The days are coming,” saith the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah”
That he wrote all these songs within in a couple of years of extending his reading of the Bible and was able to encapsulate so many ideas from that literature in what on the face of it seem quite simple songs is astounding. The album seems less threatening than “Slow Train Coming” and is his last gospel album to date – “Shot of Love” is something very different. Musically, “Saved” has moments of great beauty, energy and sublime tapestries.
So I came back to it and I find nothing here that makes me think that it is one of Dylan’s worst records. Indeed, I think I would I rank it as one of his best if I was in the habit of making league tables. The reality is that we have his whole catalogue to choose from and it is a wide-ranging smorgasbord which allows us to have “Bringing it All Back Home” on Monday, “Saved” on another day and perhaps “Tempest” on the next. But I would encourage you not to neglect “Saved” because of what you may have heard or been told.
But then what do I know. They had to force me to stop listening to “Christmas in the Heart” on the 6th of January because that one is a real favourite of mine too. And that album really annoys some people I know!