Saved (1980)

While there is general agreement that no matter what one thinks about the lyrics on Slow Train Coming, musically it is one of Dylan’s strongest, the general verdict is not equally lenient with Saved. With its ghastly cover — rivalled in tackiness only by Shot of Love — and its unequivocal title, it has proved to be an even bitterer pill to swallow than the precursor.

Which is understandable, but not quite fair. Saved is an excellent album, provided one can endure the obnoxious born-again evangelization. It may be a far cry from Slow Train Coming in the areas of polish and commercial appeal, but it has an energy, a punch, and a new approach to communication and message that is quite unique in Dylan’s production, and, as such, quite refreshing.

It should be said, however, that this more positive verdict is only partly true about the published album. Saved is unique in connection with Dylan in consisting only/mostly of songs that had already been tried out on stage for a long time before they were committed to vinyl. There is critical and historiographical consensus that the album suffered from this: by the time of the sessions for the record, the band (the same band that had played the songs on tour — another Dylan rarity) was already tired, and the spirit of the live renditions, which even the staunchest critics could not deny, did not translate well into a studio production.

There may be something true in this. Many of the songs are exuberant numbers of praise and thanksgiving, which  come better into its own from a stage, where extatically jubilant confession seems more natural than on a record.

This applies to the title track, a born-again statement if there ever was one, slightly too over-eager to be taken quite seriously (unless one shares the sentiment), perhaps, but a powerful and driving gospel rock number all the same, which I don’t mind listening to.

The same could be said about the brother-in-arms, “Solid Rock” (or, as the full title goes when it is presented during the shows: “Hanging On To A Solid Rock Made Before The Foundation Of The World”); and, to an even higher degree, to  “Pressing On” og “Are You Ready?” — the intensity that grows out of the slow build-up of these two songs during the live concerts can make even the hardest of heart jump to his feet and rejoice: “Yes! I’m ready! Take me, Bob! Take me with you!”, but that is mostly lost in the album version.

It probably couldn’t be any other way. None of the songs I’ve mentioned are among his strongest — from the gospel period or any other — but their effect depends on presence — the physical presence of the person and the band producing a sound of wall to bang one’s head against, and the temporal presence, exploiting the contrast between the indefiniteness of not knowing where this is going to end, and the inevitability of the process set in motion by the first “on-an-don-an-don-an-doon”. In the absence that the record medium necessarily entails, some of that is naturally lost. But some remains (and five bonus points for trying).

Besides, it doesn’t matter: there are strong songs left that do make the transition from concert stage to recording studio. Partly, perhaps, because they are stronger songs altogether, but mainly because they don’t depend on the live situation to the same extent.

“In The Garden” is easily Dylan’s most harmonically complex song, and although it shares some traits with the likes of “Saved”, such as the escalating intensity and the lyric repetitiveness, it depends more on the harmonic meandering to hold our attention.

Both “Covenant Woman” and “Saving Grace” are harmonically interesting, although not as wild as “In the Garden”. They are also touching, introspective reflections on the role of faith and salvation in the trials and tribulations of everyday life (at least that’s what a theologian might say about them). Especially “Covenant Woman” stands out in this respect, in a way which transcends the religious sphere. Lines like:

He must have loved me so much to send me someone as fine as you.

and

I’ll always be right by your side — I’ve got a covenant too.

work well with or without God in the equation.

This leaves the two real gems. “What Can I Do For You” gives us Dylan’s best harmonica solos ever — for once captured better on an official album than in any live rendition, at least among the ones I’ve heard. It is inventive, it is raw, and it is fragile, all at the same time. (It may be to go way beyond what kind of metaphors are appropriate for this particular album to say so, but there’s good sex in those two solos.) The sound of the mix in general comes across to me as a bit on the hard side, but the harp sound is unsurpassed.

And last but not least, and the opener, “A Satisfied Mind”, which in my book 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 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.

Have I made my point clear enough? Damn, this is one hell of an album. If you’re a godless heathen, don’t let the cover scare you away from this album. And if you’re a true believer, don’t let your benevolence and agreement prevent the album from grabbing hold of you in ways and places you might not have expected.


13 thoughts on “Saved (1980)

  1. I’m sorry, but where is tackiness in Shot of Love?

    Otherwise, I quite agree with you. It’s a shame we don’t have a remastered version of this CD. Then again, maybe this is not the time for Columbia to do sound engineering…

  2. Here is: Tackiness defined.

    I was referring to the cover only. If you press me, I’m sure I can come up with some derogatory words about the music on SoL as well, but “tacky” wouldn’t be one of them. But the cover… If it’s a joke, it’s a bad one. :)

    And, no, please no remastered version until the guy with the compression wheel has been fired…

    What I would like to see, is an official release either of the Toronto video from 1980, or some of the Fox Warfield shows, either 1979 or 1980. That would be a nice item in the Bootleg Series. Perhaps not a #1 chart climber, but that’s not what it should be all about, right…?

  3. Hm… about the music on SoL: This could have been a great album. There are elements of greatness in it. But, in a matter similar to Street Legal, it gets a bit muddy in the middle. The first and last songs of both albums are great, and there are highlights among the others, and all of the songs seem to have had at least a certain potential. But sadly, for many that potential wasn’t realized.

    About the cover: I always took this as some piece of Roy-Lichtensteineque pop art. Like this:
    (I hope this picture comes through, it doesn’t in the preview.)

  4. Yes, apparently it is. It’s hardcoded in the wordpress core too, so it’s not an option I can change. I could hack around it of course, but I’d have to do that for every upgrade, so… I’ll edit your post to add the image.

  5. About Shot of Love: it’s probably the strangest album Dylan has made. It’s not that any of the songs are bad, most of them are just not very good either, and those that are (with the one obvious exception of Every Grain of Sand, a masterpiece by any standard) take some getting used to before they become good.
    Shot of Love didn’t mean much to me until I found a reason to believe it’s good; Heart of Mine has a great second line (“you can play with fire, but you’ll get the bill”) and a great last line (“If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime”), both cliches with a twist, but other than that, it’s mostly cliches; Lenny Bruce again has a great last line (“Lenny Bruce was bad, he was the brother that you never had”), which I’ve always believed was the one line that he wanted to communicate — the rest is a nice story, perhaps, and a eulogy, but hardly more; Property of Jesus, Watered-Down Love, Dead Man, Dead Man, and Trouble are throwaways; The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar is good, and In the Summertime I like, but it’s only the third cousin of Mr Tambourine Man, if you see what I mean.
    So, yes, I agree with you about SoL.

  6. OK, so since my alt text didn’t make it into the comment: Is this picture tacky?

    And I forgot to say: Yes, yes, yes, the concert of April 20th, 1980 is one of the greatest unreleased bootlegs of the man. I don’t quite understand the video they produced there, it seems to be shot professionally (judging by the number of cameras and there position), but it’s also blurry and parts of songs are missing…

    Anyway, the audio is great on it’s own. So if anyone reads this and has not heard this recording: Google for “The Born Again Music” and get the two audio CDs and the video DVD. Figuring out BitTorrent is more than worth the trouble.

    The audio includes the introducing act of “the girls”, which is interesting in its own right. The opening story told by Regina McCrary still makes me shed a few tears whenever I hear it, although I understand everyone who considers this performance a bit tacky…

  7. According to Longman’s dictionary, “if something is tacky, it looks cheap or badly made, and shows poor taste.” In that case, Lichtenstein is beyond tacky, since he is defying the very concepts of “taste” and “cheap”. But outside of the protected world of modern art, in the lineage from Duchamp, through Warhol, which guarantees Lichtenstein a status of art (and hence protection from any such epitets as “poor taste”, “cheap”, or “badly made”), yes, it would be tacky.
    The Shot Of Love cover doesn’t have that protection. Besides, whereas Lichtenstein’s cartoons are patently devoid of meaning of content, the SoL cover tries both to piggyback on Liechtenstein and (at least as it appears to me) convey meaning. So, yes, it is tacky, although there is no perceivable difference in style between the two.
    Ah, the wonders of modern aesthetics. :)

  8. since we’re on the topic of massey hall, 4/20/80, aren’t the harmonica solos on that performance of “what can i do for you?” better than the studio versions? that song right there is probably my all-time favorite dylan performance, and for me sums up everything that was great about the gospel period.

  9. One more comment about SoL: I think the ‘throwaways’ needn’t have been that. ‘Trouble’ might have rocked as much as ‘Shot of Love’, if it had been produced correctly and maybe slightly rewritten. I’ve read somewhere that Columbia stopped Robert Blackwell from being the producer of the album after ‘Shot of Love’ (the song) was recorded and made Chuck Plotkin produce the rest of the album because he sounded more ‘contemporary’ or something like that. And I do believe that a album full of songs like ‘Shot of Love’ would have been quite enjoyable.

    Also, SoL is almost like Infidels when it comes to great songs being left as outtakes (Three great songs: Angelina, Caribbean Wind, Yonder Comes Sin; good songs that might have rocked: You Changed My Life, Need a Woman).

    And since I mentioned Yonder Comes Sin: May it be that the circulating version of that song came from a ‘fast tape’, i.e. that it was slower recorded than played back? The official tabs have the song in A major, which seems probable, but if I play along to it with the guitar, A# seems to sound better. At least I remember having that impression.

  10. OK, screw that. Maybe I always played with a tuned-down guitar or something. I just tried it again and A sounds closer to the record than A#. To my ears, which doesn’t mean much anyway.

  11. @christopher f: I agree completely about the general evaluation of that whole performance. As for the harmonica solo, I think it’s one of his greatest live solos (there are some Mr Tambourine Man solos from 1966 which are in the same league), but for me at least, the album version stands one step taller. What’s special about the album version is that it creates an ongoing melodic counterpoint to the accompaniment and the underlying melody, which is interesting all the way through, whereas the Massey Hall version has a rhythmic punch and great phrasing, but is somewhat repetitive in the melodic area. What both versions have in common, and where they both shine, is the slow ending, which just soars and flows, maintaining the impetus all the way to the end. Magnificent.

    @heiner: I agree with everything you say, both about SoL and Infidels. Infidels has a more interesting production, so even the throwaways sound ok.

  12. Strange how the visuals on the album cover can draw me away. If not for E.O. here i would have never heard that soothing harpoon solo. Much obliged.

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