Bob Dylan – “Saved” reassessed.

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 It is caricatured as being badly produced and it is often said that Dylan should have withdrawn it and replaced it with a live album from his gospel tours.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.

Bob Dylan - Saved

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.

Bob Dylan - Saved 2

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.

Bob Dylan - Saved 4

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”

Bob Dylan - Saved 3

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!

Bob Dylan - Saved 5

14 thoughts on “Bob Dylan – “Saved” reassessed.

  1. Amen to that, father. The 2003 tribute album gotta serve somebody sums it all up pretty well too. Why do we have to wait till He returns, when his music already is amongst us.

  2. Very nice review. I have always loved Saved and I still listen to it often. I saw Dylan at Temple University in 1999 and he performed “A Satisfied Mind”. I was close to the stage and after the song ended I screamed out “Saving Grace” as a request. Perhaps Bob heard me and eventually worked it back into his repertoire? If so, you’re welcome! I also love “Christmas in the Heart” and is on regular play at Christmas time in my home and is a family favorite.

  3. I always thought “Saved” was a great album. Brilliant writing on that record. I saw an early Warfield show in late 1979 and thought everything about it was fantastic.

  4. The people who dissed this album weren’t listening to it as a musical experience, they were reacting to the lyrics, and, what’s worse, mourning the loss of their idol. I don’t know if “gut-bucket gospel,” is an actual category but it’s what came to mind when I first heard the album. That, or “back woods church.” It’s also inner-city store-front church. Whatever, even to this atheist it’s deep, heartfelt, and solid – just like the rock.

  5. I love this record and am so beyond happy that you mentioned the remastered CD version because I don’t think most people realize that this CD was remastered and what a difference that makes. If you’re ever getting ready to hit the road this record is a great companion and like you I’m not exactly known for listening to much Christian music, whatever that is, but this record really always seems to hit the spot. Thanks for the insightful and passionate writing.

  6. The vocal on Pressing On is as good as anything he has ever recorded. I often return to Saved because he sings so well on this record. A classic

  7. Did you even comment on “In The Garden”? I heard Dylan perform this in 1988 in Memphis, and it was sublime. I don’t understand your skimming right past it. Perhaps the best song on the album.

    • 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.

      A little confused.

      Darren

  8. I loved this album when it first came out. I was a very new Christian when it was released, and was trying to figure out my place in the church. Dylan provided some much needed help in my early spiritual journey. Then, for reasons I forget, my love for the album turned cold and I put it on the shelf.

    Thirty years later a man in a pub wearing a long black coat encouraged me to listen to it again and I couldn’t understand why I’d gone off it. Maybe I’d overplayed it? Anyway it’s back now as a firm favourite again.

    Great article Darren. Looking forward to the rest.

  9. Uh, no. Sure, every album by every artist will have its supporters and same goes for Bob. But when Saved and Christmas in the Heart are two of your favorites, it’s really not a matter of re-assessing. Happen to agree with you that Dylan’s songwriting output of the born-again era is an amazing feat, but this record? No. There’s a reason it’s so universally panned, and it’s not this theory about aggressive lyrics and all that. IT’S THE MUSIC, MAN! Compared to what went before it and what followed, Saved sucks. It’s a terrible album with few competitors in the Dylan canon. Hadn’t heard the idea before, but yes, a live album from the shows of that era would have blown this mess right out of the water.

  10. Thank you for a great article. It’s definitely time for a ‘Bootleg series’ issue on the 1979-81 period to get the whole ‘gospel era’ into proper perspective. Strange how three albums in three years still seem to offer only fragmentary glimpses of such a rich and complex time in Dylan’s career.

    I remember my disappointment when ‘Saved’ came out, towards the end of my first year at university. My introduction to Dylan was the wordy sprawl of the big ‘70s albums, ‘Blood on the tracks’, ‘Desire’ and ‘Street legal’, and ‘Saved’ was by comparison short (even when padded out with a lot of instrumental solos) and simplistic. Worse, the first side seemed like an exact re-run of ‘Slow train coming’ (bluesy statement opener ‘Gotta serve somebody’/’Saved’, spiritually flavoured love song ‘Precious angel’/’Covenant woman’, heartfelt confessional ‘I believe in you’/’What can I do for you?’, wrap-up-the-side rock number ‘Slow train’/’Solid rock’); and since when had Dylan repeated himself in any of his albums? Musically it fell flat on its face at the first non-event chorus of ‘Saved’ (the more disappointing because ‘Satisfied mind’ leading into the first verse of ‘Saved’ is as powerful an opening as anything in his catalogue); and even the sublime ‘What can I do for you?’ was spoilt by the weak meander of the chord changes in the verses, and the horribly misjudged egotism of ‘I sure did make it through’. Certainly there was a lot to appreciate, too – some fantastic singing, a handful of good if not great songs, and ‘In the garden’, that somehow transcends its lyrical and musical weaknesses so completely that it stands for me as one of the great statements of his career.

    36 years on, I’m inclined to the ‘more is more’ approach to the 1979-81 years. As far as individual songs are concerned, there is little that would stand up against the ‘big’ Dylan songs, but there is a lot of greatness scattered around – not only on the three albums as released, but in some of the best and most focussed of all Dylan’s concerts, and a decent sprinkling of thus-far unreleased songs. And not to forget a sense of the evilness of evil, and the importance of moral choice, which (whatever one’s own specific beliefs) is as relevant in the world of 2016 as it was at the beginning of the 1980s; that added retrospective depth to his back catalogue in the juxtaposition of old and new material in the late 1980/1981 concerts, and has continued to fill his work ever since. There’s nothing here that on its own would justify the interest in Dylan that has kept some of us going for decades, but as part of his whole output it’s unmissable. Thanks again for a great article, and I look forward to more of your insights.

  11. Pingback: Bob Dylan in the 80s – worth more than a second glimpse. | twilightdawning

  12. Pingback: Dylan in the 80s – worth more than a second glimpse… and his thoughts on music and film. | twilightdawning

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