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.
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.