CK Retro Review: Saved by Bob Dylan

Whereas Bob Dylan leavened his first foray into religious music with a Memphis soul bent on Slow Train Coming, his second paean to his faith, 1980’s Saved, leaned more towards traditional gospel music. As a result, many of the songs rely heavily upon the passion of Dylan’s performances to carry the day, especially since the songwriting wasn’t his most inspired. Here is a song-by-song review.

TWO STARS

9. “A Satisfied Mind”- This is nothing more than a warm-up for the rest of the album, a table-setter for what’s to come. Dylan and his backing vocalists are pretty much all you have here on this cover of an old country hit, and it’s here and gone in two minutes, so it doesn’t have much time to leave much of an impression.

8. “Saved”- This is pretty standard up-tempo testifying. Dylan doesn’t always seem at home with the quick tempo, as he huffs through the lyrics and gets swallowed by the backing singers and frenzied arrangement. It might work on Sunday morning, but “Saved” falls a little flat the rest of the week, especially with lyrics that are heartfelt but boilerplate.

7. “In The Garden”- I’ve always felt like this one was on the precipice of something great, but it never quite gets there. Maybe it’s the woozy chord changes or the overblown soft-to-loud dynamics of the arrangement. Maybe it’s just that the questions Dylan raises in the lyrics are used mainly to regurgitate Biblical stories of Jesus being without unearthing any kind of insight from them. It’s probably all of the above. An interesting misfire in my book.

THREE STARS

6. “Covenant Woman”- This is along the same lines as “Precious Angel” from Slow Train Coming, albeit it without the stirring music or the “You’re going to hell” aftertaste. The refrains meander a bit, but the verses are nice, especially when Dylan rounds out this tribute to the woman who holds his holy heart by revealing in the closing lines that he has made his own divine promise to love her, just as she has done for him.

5. “What Can I Do For You?”- Lyrically, this is pretty standard stuff, as the narrator wonders how he can possibly repay all that his Lord has given him. That’s all fine and good, but it can’t compare to the power of Dylan’s harmonica-playing in the song. The coda, which features Bob blowing high and lonesome above a church organ, effortlessly captures the pain of unworthiness and the steadfastness of devotion that the lyrics labor to express. It almost makes you wish, for maybe the only time in the Dylan catalog, that he had just clammed up and let his music do the talking.

4. “Are You Ready?”- If there is a single overarching emotion that hangs over much of Saved, it’s the vulnerability of a lone man laying himself before God’s might and wisdom. The closing track paints a much tougher picture though, as it brings back the bluesy sound of Slow Train Coming and dares non-believers to knock a battery off God’s shoulder. Dylan also wins points here by not sparing himself the tough interrogation: “Have I surrendered to the will of God/Or am I still acting like the boss?” His final verdict is that judgment is coming one way or the other, so you best get your soul right.

3. “Solid Rock”- The gospel song as riff-rocker, “Solid Rock” is an ingenious recording that keeps things pretty spare lyrically but gets its point across by the fervor with which it is performed by Dylan and his cohorts. That refrain is fantastic; by reiterating how much he’s “hanging on,” Bob is stressing the perseverance that it takes to maintain faith. The verses are also strong and pointed, showing that Dylan is always at his best as a writer when he’s laying down what he truly feels, even if you don’t agree with it, than when he equivocates.

2. “Saving Grace”- Yes, the sentiment is as clichéd as it gets, but there is something in Dylan’s performance that is undeniably touching, wobbly vocals and all. It’s also one of the better-realized recordings on the album, which wrings a little extra emotion out of Bob’s affecting gospel melody. Dylan’s incredulity at making it to this point in his life feels truthful. He also adds some interesting quirks to his confession, such as when he states, “But to search for love, that ain’t no more than vanity.” By the end, even the most steadfast cynics will have a hard time denying Bob his hard-earned, redemptive triumph.

FOUR STARS

1.”Pressing On”- Dylan must have understood early on that he had a whopper of a chorus on his hands here, which is why he relies on it so heavily to deliver this song to exalted status among his religious material. And, although he overrelied on female backing vocalists for a good part of the middle portion of his career, the singers on board here really bring some needed power to the mix. Add in Jim Keltner’s incredible feel on the drums and Dylan’s inspirational piano work, and you’ve got an irresistible slice of musical heaven about the relentless effort it takes to get to the one in the sky.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)

http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0810888238

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22 Comments on “CK Retro Review: Saved by Bob Dylan”

  1. Jacek says:

    I actually do consider this batch of songwriting to be Dylan’s most inspired, at least as presented in the Warfield or on the road in 1979 and 1980. It’s not a common stance, I know, but I always like to corroborate it by reminding people that Jerry Garcia considered the songs on Slow Train Coming and Saved to be Bob’s best, musically, since Blonde on Blonde! Though his take, too, seems to have been based primarily on the live show(s) he attended. As far as my preferences go, some of the Saved songs made it to vinyl unscathed (the title track, In the Garden, Saving Grace, Are You Ready), with one more just a little too slick but otherwise impeccable (What Can I Do for You?) and the last three (Covenant Woman, Solid Rock, Pressing On) bowdlerized to various extents, though none altogether damning. In any case, Street-Legal followed by Slow Train Coming followed by Saved is my favorite stretch of three Dylan albums in a row.

    Also, with all due respect to your likes & dislikes here, dear Kid, I like that the song you designate as most forgettable (A Satisfied Mind) can be another’s favorite. I quote Eyolf Østrem of Dylanchords: “‘In my book [it] is one of Dylan’s crowning achievements as a singer. It’s not powerful, it’s not showy, at times he breaks like a little girl, but there is an intimacy in the delivery which gives the message credibility and urgency. The interaction with the backing singers is exquisite all the way through, and although my mental image of the song is that of calm deliberation, there is actually an intensity which just grows as the song progresses. There happens remarkably much in a little less than two minutes.”

    Had Dylan & band transferred Covenant, Rock and Pressing as successfully to the studio as they did the others, this album would be my vote for the fulfillment of that wonderful Dylan song from a decade earlier, the one that starts on the streets of Rome…

    • mickvet says:

      Jacek, your views are more common than you might think, I’d wager, but a lot of people could feel a little intimidated to say so. Hopefully, we’ll soon see a bootleg series release of those wonderful gospel shows, rants and raps and all!

      • Jacek says:

        Yes indeed! It’s fantastic that we have all the boots we do, but a pristine-quality ’79/’80 show, with photos and liner notes and all, will sure be a treat.

        Your comment also made me remember that, in fact, in the handful of more private or one-on-one Dylan convos I’ve had, with hardcore fans anyway, there does tend to be more appreciation expressed for this era than the consensus would have one believe. (And thanks for the added opinion about Tempest downblog! I tend to think that, after the initial water-testing period, all reviews from the first six months or so after release should be shunted off to the side or forgotten or something. All good albums only truly come alive in time. So it’s great to hear this strong support for Tempest in late June 2013!)

  2. Kenneth Lockerbie says:

    I’m with Jacek on this . . . I saw Dylan in late ’79 at the Warfield and still think it was one of the best Dylan shows I’d ever seen. He was inspired and doing ALL NEW MATERIAL. He should have put out a live album of the Saved material, but I still enjoy the recording too. Another underrated Dylan album.

    • Jacek says:

      So cool that you actually got to attend one of those shows, and were in a state of mind sympathetic enough to enjoy it! I was born far too late (a couple of months after Oh Mercy’s release) but “Dylan 1979” is my answer to the perennial “if you could go back in time and attend one concert, what would it be?” question. Not quite sure which date (so many grand ones to choose from!) Well, that or May 18th, 1980 in Akron, when Bob delivered my single favorite live vocal of his on that impromptu I Will Sing, I Will Sing encore.

      Thanks for sharing that, Kenneth!

  3. hans altena says:

    Lyrically a misfire, even if you consider the restraints given by the context of the gospel song which begs for a certain simplicty and works on the level of a catchy refrain, short message, repetition and then a lot of feeling. Didn’t Dylan, especially in the beginning, elevate the lovesong to a whole other level, where cliché went out of the door or got a strange background radiation, until in turn he felt it necessary sometimes to just return to the sentiment proper, in order to stay out of the trap of repeating a certain recipy of sarcasm or irony? Here he even seldom reaches the heights of the best texts of the existing gospels, those that were born out of suffering and wrestling for hope. I would have expected something in the veins of A Change is gonna come by the immortal Sam Cooke, itself inspired by Blowing in the wind, a song that is a gospel of sorts by the way… But no, we get childish endeavours into the expressing of obeyance to the Lord, as if Jakob had never existed, nor the prophets that fought with God. Yet the music and his singing channel another notion, they really go deep and delve into the pain and bliss of the heart, touched by religious vision. And though the muddy production hampers the light that shines, and the darkness that is felt from these performances, which would really start to bloom when brought life on stage in those fierce tours of 79 and 80, one cannot escape the force of the music, as weak as the lyrics were this time. So I have to agree with a lot that is said by the Kid as well as Jacek, though I cannot agree with the statement that the trilogy (which it is) of Street legal, Slow train coming and Saved is Dylan’s crowning achievement. That would have required that the level of Street legal was maintained and surpassed lyrically and Slow train had not existed, ahem… sorry for this last remark but I mean it… And, of course, in my book still nothing surpasses the period of 65-66, though Bott, Desire, L&T and Tempest bloom exuberant in the shadow of the Electric Trilogy.

    • Jacek says:

      I enjoyed your write-up, Hans! I will refer to a man of greater powers than mine, Christopher Ricks, to make a stand for the excellence of some of the lyrics that may appear if not necessarily be simplistic, particularly something like What Can I Do for You? Some of those lines just crush me. Covenant Woman, too, I consider to be one of Dylan’s most powerful odes. Maybe it’s because I’ve had someone similar in my own life that the way Dylan gets at the sentiments strike me as both so beautiful and so ingeniously expressed. “I’ve been broken, shattered like an empty cup / I’m just waiting on the Lord to build me up.” And just a few more Saved snippets, if I can be forgiven: “By this time I’d a-thought I would be sleeping in a pine box for all eternity.” “He bought me with a price, freed me from the pit full of emptiness and wrath and the fire that burns in it.” “I’m hanging on to a solid rock made before the foundation of the world, and I won’t let go and I can’t let go.” I dunno, friends, but these sound like good lyrics to me!

      And while I like your observation about the more fraught figures in the Bible and that sort of conflict being absent here, I think there’s a place for everything: a place for confusion (Street-Legal), warning (Slow Train Coming), gratitude (Saved), as well as dark nights of the soul (Oh Mercy? Time out of Mind? Tempest? just guesses, as I’ve read a little about but haven’t heard these yet).

      • hans altena says:

        I think you picked some fine lines here that do have a power I cannot deny, and you do have a point with the thematical place for everything. It sure is something that characterizes Dylan, he takes a piece of the diamond and makes it reflect, but when he involves the whole of the diamond in that process the outcome is just more brilliant. In that concern I really hope you will pick up on Oh Mercy, Time out of Mind and especially Tempest, though that is an album of such lyrical depth that it might take some time to get into it. I regard Tempest as his deepest visionary album, together with Bringing it all Back Home and Highway 61 that are more exuberant but younger and maybe lesser in wisdom.

    • Jacek says:

      I have every intention of picking those up, Hans, it’s just that I’m still in the process of exploring Bob, chronologically, and am only in 1988! But it’s exciting to read such high praise for Tempest. It definitely sounds like one of the more interesting records left ahead of me.

      • mickvet says:

        Jacek, Hans is spot-on about Tempest. I’ve listened a couple of hundred times to this album at this stage, and each time I hear something else. His theology has grown since the early ’80’s, as one would expect-he has become a devotee of the mother of Our Lord, for example!-and the album is wholly coherent, with all the songs so very strong.

  4. Baggy says:

    I think the initial reaction to Saved was driven by a sense of disappointment that Bob was still on a gospel route, and the album was accompanied by very negative reviews in the music press for the San Francisco and subsequent shows with their preaching tone unleavened by any material from his back catalogue (now we have the tapes we know better). And the album for me does start poorly – a short intro track, Saved unexciting, and Covenant Woman pleasant and suggesting promise, but a bit draggy. The whole thing steps up three gears when Bob gets the harmonica out for What Can I do for You.

    As i said in the last thread, I do though prefer much of Saved to Slow Train Coming. My major disagreement on the rankings would be with In The Garden , whose musicality and circular nature seem to me a departure for Bob, and which i rate highly. That creates for me a very strong side 2 – Pressing On, In the Garden, Saving Grace, and Are you Ready? seems to me a very rich sequence. “Are you ready…I Hope You’re ready”, hasn’t that been Bob’s message in one form or another ever since?

    • Jacek says:

      I think you’re right to point out the strength of the second side, Baggy. I don’t always feel my way into this recording of Pressing On, but as far as the song goes I don’t think Bob’s offered up many better; hell, even Greil Marcus, avowed hater of most post-’60s Dylan, loves Pressing On. And it does start a really marvelous sequence. In the Garden must surely be a contender for Bob’s best, or at least most interesting, chord progression. Eyolf Østrem says it’s his most harmonically complex (I’ll take his word for it). And aye, let’s remember (I’m paraphrasing) “each of my songs ends with ‘good luck, I hope you make it'” which in a roundabout way is still the concern here. The stakes are higher, more urgent, and yes, more specific, but such was Bob’s thinking in those years, and he believed the end at hand. For all the much-maligned “preachiness” of these songs and tours, Dylan was still being driven by a real concern for his fellow man & woman (just a shining artifact of the past).

      • Baggy says:

        Thx for your thoughtful comments Janek, and that’s uncanny – i was thinking of Bob’s comment “each of my songs ends with good luck” when i entered my post .

        “People thought he changed , but he didn’t change, he was the same man.”

        I’m looking forward to CK’s comments on Shot of Love and Infidels ..things sure got pretty interesting around now!

  5. Shelley says:

    The middle to end of Side 1 is worth having the record: lovely chord changes in “Covenant Woman” (and on “In the Garden” as well), proving Dylan is more than just a G-C-D guy; the harmonica coda on “What Can I Do For You?” is possibly his best studio perfomance on the instrument; and “Solid Rock” is an underrated cooker with some nice bass work from Tim Drummond.

    I think this record could benefit from a remastered reissue a la New Morning and Before the Flood. How about a double / triple set? Maybe the original remastered studio lp on disc 1, and two discs worth of the live shows from ’79 / ’80.

    • Jacek says:

      Ooh yes, good call! I think Solid Rock has one of the Great Basslines of Rock and Roll. Not sure yet just how many others dwell in those hallowed halls, but it’s a select company.

    • Kenneth Lockerbie says:

      I’d vote for a “Bootleg Series” issue of some live gospel and studio outtakes (like Hallelulah! from 1981). Luv Shot Of Love too . . .

  6. Baggy says:

    Oops, not sure if anyone has mentioned ” Ain’t gonna go to hell for anybody” yet, but that live track is one fantastic song.

  7. Kenneth Lockerbie says:

    Cover Down Break Through ! ! !

  8. street legal says:

    i´m not a religious guy, but love all those big misteries concerning all things included faith & religion, saying that, i think its another masterpiece, from satisfied mind ( how can people don´t like that, don´t get it ) all the way to the end, great songs, great voice and great tour, just slow train & saved songs, all fresh and new, don´t care about the message or the sermons, its the songs and the music.Bob have written sow many lyrics so many lines about everything, if you don´t like those you have a whole other bible to choose from lol. I think you´re oppinion is as good or valid as mine, but you are raiting bob´s songs and albuns too low, this is an album with 4&5 stars songs, the problem as usual is Bob doin´ what he felt like doin´ and those words & message drove people away from is records and shows, you have to be a brave man to do a thing like that over&over. Song writing not inspiring ? you´ve written…Better listen to those albuns again

    • rob ford says:

      could not agree more…and yes to the suggested bootleg series from the period – arguably his greatest live performance period. Saved is a masterpeice.

  9. CK, thank you for your very wonderful and thoughtful series. Big thanks to Mr Dylan too – what a great career! I always found Satisfied Mind and Saved (the title song) pretty fantastic.Saved, at volume, I think is quite awesome. Will have to re-listen to the other songs now … Wishing you well.


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