CK Retro Review: Saved by Bob DylanPosted: June 24, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)