""Slow Train" was a big album. "Saved" didn't have those kinda numbers but to me it was just as big an album. I'm fortunate that I'm in a position to release an album like "Saved" with a major record company so that it will be available to the people who would like to buy it." Bob Dylan 1981
It is interesting to note that a section of Bob Dylan's lengthy career that lasted for such a relatively short space of time should cause so much controversy. The Christian or Born Again phase that began with the August 1979 release of "Slow Train Coming" was to all intents and purposes over by the time Dylan began his second series of concerts at the Warfield Theatre in November 1980. It was at these concerts that he re-introduced his more established material and began to shift his focus away from exclusively religious performances. The preceding year had seen Dylan perform three series of concerts (November/December 1979, January/February 1980 and April/May 1980) that were entirely spiritual in nature that alienated much of his loyal body of support, because of his refusal to play anything that predated "Slow Train Coming." It was immediately after the second series of concerts that he returned to the Muscle Shoals Studios to record "Saved," probably the only time that he has ever produced anything that could be called a sequel. The album was of necessity recorded quickly, using the band that was supporting Dylan at the time and there was a general feeling that it suffered because of this, lacking the spontaneity and enthusiasm of the live shows. "...it's a pity those songs were recorded in the studio, instead of live." said drummer Jim Keltner, "I think that maybe they were trying to revisit the sound of Slow Train. And you can't do that with Bob," he added, echoing the thoughts of many. Even Dylan himself, after performing the award winning "Gotta Serve Somebody" at the Grammys at the end of February, suggested to Columbia executives that the album be re-cut as a live set. The idea was vetoed, but Dylan didn't discard it entirely and proposed a live album (culled from the April concerts in Toronto) in addition to "Saved." Not surprisingly, Columbia were not prepared to issue a third album of gospel material in what would in effect have been less than twelve months. They were almost certainly correct in this, but with the benefit of hindsight, a live album in place of the studio recorded "Saved" would perhaps have been the more sensible option.
It is surely no accident that "A Satisfied Mind" with its arrogantly pompous theme, opens the album. This, the only song not penned by Dylan, (the title track was co-written with Tim Drummond) has been recorded by artists as diverse as Porter Waggoner and Tim Hardin, and its unequivocally simplistic lyrics are well suited to the message that he was trying to get across. The image of "One rich man in ten with a satisfied mind" or the idea that "The wealthiest person is a pauper at times" are very much in keeping with what Dylan himself was writing at this time, the eternal struggle between material possessions and spiritual well-being. This is not a great song, and Dylan's curious rendition of it with the humming and the gospel style harmonies do not do it any favours. Thankfully it is quite short, and the closing line "I'll leave this old world with a satisfied mind" leaves us in no doubt as to his intentions.
Like the majority of the songs on this album, "Saved" deals more with Dylan's personal redemption (hence the title) than the idea of preaching to the masses, and therein lies the problem. While one cannot doubt the passion and fidelity of his commitment, indeed it would be churlish to do so, there is an uneasy undercurrent of conceit at being one of the chosen few that runs through the album. Kurt Loder, reviewing it in Rolling Stone picked up on this, saying "Dylan hasn't simply found Jesus but seems to imply that he has His home phone number as well" That aside, the sheer exuberance of the title song is breathtaking, "By His grace I have been touched/By His word I have been healed" and "By His truth I can be upright/By His strength I can endure" leave one in no doubt as to Dylan's devotion. Co-written with journeyman bassist Tim Drummond, this is one of the better tracks on the album, and listening to it you can really believe that Dylan has been "Saved/By the blood of the lamb."
Although "Covenant Woman" does not rank as one of Dylan's finest love songs, it is certainly a wonderfully delivered ballad. The reason for his attraction is however made clear in the very first line "Covenant woman, got a contract with the Lord" for which she will receive her reward "Way up yonder..." in this piece which is far more relaxed than its predecessor. He sees this woman as a step on the spiritual ladder, and uses a simple metaphor to describe his quest for rebirth "I've been broken, shattered like an empty cup/I'm just waiting on the Lord to rebuild and fill me up" but his gratitude for his earthly reward, "He must have loved me so much to send someone as fine as you" is a little uninspired. Again there is the sly reference to being chosen "I'll always be right by your side, I've got a covenant too" and the slightly dangerous "...intimate little girl" to describe his paramour. Dylan was not happy with the original cut of this song, and it was re-recorded on the last day of the sessions.
The title of "What Can I Do For You?" says it all about the song. This is Dylan asking God how to repay Him for all the gifts he has bestowed upon him (Dylan). We are into the meat of the song from the very first lines "You have given everything to me/What can I do for You?" and in the second verse he puts into words the feeling of being one of the elite "...You've chosen me to be among the few/What can I do for You?" This repeated theme is even evident on the album's (decidedly unsubtle) cover, and begins to irritate after a while, but again you cannot fault Dylan's commitment. The third verse opens with the pointed "Soon as man is born, you know the sparks begin to fly" he says, falling back on one of his favourite topics, man's ability to create his own problems, but I have a problem with the line "You have explained every mystery." Later in the song we get the admission and the challenge "I know all about poison, I know all about fiery darts/I don't care how rough the road is, show me where it starts" as Dylan again bares his soul.
Whether the pun in the title of "Solid Rock" is intentional or not, it is just about the only rocker on the album. This was one song that was getting a positive reception on stage "There was a show in Seattle where we got a standing ovation after Solid Rock for almost five minutes. It was so extraordinarily powerful..." recalls drummer Jim Keltner, but the studio version is a pale shadow. Everyone tries very hard, perhaps too hard, but the song is lacking fervour and Dylan's defiant posturing when he sings "And I won't let go and I can't let go..." complete with the female chorus, seems somehow a little strained. The familiar theme of conflict between body and soul crops up again, but the lines that convey it, "It's the ways(sic) of the flesh to war against the spirit/Twenty four hours a day you can feel it you can hear it" seem a little more restrained, and one gets the feeling of missed opportunity here, this could have been one of the best tracks on the album.
"Pressing On," one of the finest songs on the album, sees Dylan answering those who would mock or belittle his faith, "Many try to stop me, shake me up in my mind" he tells us, but nothing will stop him "...pressing on/To the higher calling of my Lord." It is in this sparse song that Dylan, accompanying himself on the piano, addresses the thorny and controversial subject of original sin, "Temptation's not an easy thing, Adam given the devil reign/Because he sinned I got no choice..." but this is something that he is quite prepared to accept, "...it runs in my vein." This and "In The Garden," the track that follows it, represent to me the high points of the album. "In The Garden," sees Dylan revisiting a scene that he has often used for dramatic effect in the past, Christ's betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane and the various powerful images that surround it have provided him with some of his richest images, dating right back to the penultimate verse of 1964's "With God On Our Side." This song stands out because it is the only one here with anything like a narrative, and the only one where Dylan uses the earthly manifestation of God/Christ to get his point across. The repeated line at the beginning and end of each verse adds to the power of the piece as Dylan picks the relevant fragments of an often told tale from healing the blind and crippled to the resurrection and uses them for dramatic effect. The fourth verse (the only one where a quote is not used) is perhaps quite significant, I can never hear the lines "The multitude wanted to make Him king, put a crown upon his head/Why did He slip away to a quiet place instead?" without thinking that this would not be the first time that Dylan has made a comparison between events in his life and that of Christ. The strength of the song is further enhanced by the repetition of the final verse which contains the potent "Did they know right then and there what that power was worth?" as he almost assumes the mantle of a fire and brimstone preacher with the closing line "When He rose from the dead did they believe?" This is a fine song, of which Rolling Stone's Kurt Loder said "If nonbelievers could be converted by music alone, "In The Garden" would be the tune to do it."
"Saving Grace" is a far more subdued affair, that again has Dylan pondering on his faith and seeking forgiveness for various (unnamed) sins, "Guess I owe You some kind of apology" and he acknowledges his debt, "...I know I'm only living/By the saving grace that's over me." The second verse opens with "By this time I'd a-thought I would be sleeping/In a pine box for all eternity" which puts one in mind of the old joke If I'd known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself. Levity aside, Dylan is in serious mood here as he anticipates his redemption, "Well, the death of life, then comes the resurrection" and prepares himself for whatever tasks are asked of him, "Wherever I am welcome is where I will be." He is convinced that virtue is indeed its own reward, "The wicked know no peace and you just can't fake it" and there is only one righteous path "There's only one road and it leads to Calvary" but for the first time, we are aware of some doubt, "It gets discouraging at times, but I know I'll make it" but this is outweighed "By the saving grace that's over me." Dylan's spirituality is more palatable when it is delivered in thoughtful and introspective style like this rather than the haranguing and finger-pointing method that he sometimes adopts.
The final track, "Are You Ready" is unfortunately one of the least convincing, with Dylan repeatedly asking if we are ready to meet Jesus, pointedly he doesn't say whether he is, the nearest he gets is "Am I ready, hope I'm ready." This is a poorly thought out idea that results in a poor song, little more than a rehashing of what has gone before. "Have you decided whether you want to be/In heaven or in hell?" and "Are you thinking of yourself/Or are you following the pack?" are hardly original concepts. Again we see the idea that the "pack" represents the hopeless cases while the chosen few will get their just reward, but Dylan is still questioning whether his faith and devotion are strong enough "Have I surrendered to the will of God/Or am I still acting like the boss?" he asks in a curiously uncharacteristic flash of self-doubt. For somebody who often uses his strongest or most pertinent song to close an album, "Are You Ready?" comes as a great disappointment.
Commercially, "Saved" was not a success, failing to make the top twenty and alienating fans further than "Slow Train Coming" had, with which it was of course (unfavourably) compared. Some considered it a superior work, but to most it was charmless and cold, odd when one considers the undoubted strength of the writing. Dylan resumed his touring schedule in April after a six week break and the religious passion had not abated, he even performed three new songs ("Cover Down, Break Through," "Ain't Going To Hell For Anybody" and "I Will Love Him") that he had written during that break, the titles of which leave one in no doubt as to their content. The album was released a month after that final gospel tour came to an end, and not all views were negative "...the Picasso of song" is how contemporary Leonard Cohen described Dylan, adding "I thought those were some of the most beautiful songs that have ever entered the whole landscape of gospel music" and Rolling Stone called it a "...much more aesthetically gratifying LP than its predecessor," but generally speaking the public hated it and saw the cover as arrogant and insensitive. When Dylan began his "Musical Retrospective" tour in November 1980 older material had begun to creep into the concerts, and over a period of time the religious songs would slowly disappear. Typically Dylan did not comment on this, other than to tell Robert Hillburn of the Los Angeles Times that his old songs were not anti-God, "I wasn't sure about that for a while" he said "I love those songs. They're still a part of me." Kurt Loder was philosophical in his review "Maybe he'll evolve, maybe he'll just walk away. Whichever the case, stagnation has never been his style, and after "Saved" there seems precious little left to say about salvation through dogma," words that were to be proved true. As to the songs themselves, very few of the eighteen that make up both albums are heard in live performance these days, in recent years Dylan has performed "Gotta Serve Somebody" and "I Believe In You" from "Slow Train Coming" and "Saved," "Solid Rock" and "In The Garden" from "Saved" but the remainder are largely ignored. By April of the following year, when he began the sessions for what would become 1981's "Shot Of Love" his focus had shifted considerably, and the resulting album although it contained some spiritual material (notably "Property Of Jesus" and the outstanding "Every Grain Of Sand") was a far more restrained undertaking.