Recorded: February 11-15, 1980
Released: June 23, 1980
I think there are two conventional wisdom reactions to this album. (1) It sucks. (2) It’s “incomplete”. The first reaction is (more or less) self explanatory. The second reaction – that’s mine! – needs a little unpacking.
A good way to start understanding this album is to contrast it with its predecessor. Slow Train Coming, while clearly coming from Dylan’s born again experience, still had more hooks for the secular audience. There was a strong strand of protest music (especially on the title track), indicting the hypocrites, the self-righteous, the oppressors, the falsely religious. And the music was still somewhat conventionally Dylanesque: blues oriented rock, with some catchy pop touches (e.g., “Precious Angel, “Gotta Serve Somebody, “Slow Train”, Mark Knopfler’s guitar, etc.)
“Slow Train Coming” also was pretty strongly evangelical, which means it was necessarily outward facing. It often addresses “you”, or America, or even a “Precious Angel”.
On the other hand, the musical style of “Saved” is much more straight up gospel. This includes both rave ups like the title song and “Solid Rock” as well as quiet hymas like “Pressing On” and “What Can I Do For You?” And I think, even more of a contrast, the songs here are more inward looking; many are devotional songs about Dylan’s relationship with God. He isn’t really concerned with America or his so-called friends anymore.
So you can see why “Saved” appealed even less to secular audiences.
But why would I give it an “incomplete”? For reasons that I don’t understand, the performances here are largely pretty flat, even lifeless. The uptempo songs fare the best, but even they don’t have the excitement of a good gospel performance.
So, I’ve got to judge this album as a collection of performances. And if this was our only exposure to the songs collected here, they too would make little impression.
But fortunately, we have a completely different window onto the songs: the live versions included on “The Bootleg Series Vol. 13: Trouble No More 1979–1981”. These are fantastic, passionate performances (The “Slow Train Coming” songs also are great, but they didn’t need the transformation in the same way.) The odd thing is that, unlike what we saw with “Shelter from the Storm” on “Hard Rain” or “Isis” on the “Rolling Thunder Revue”, the live arrangements of the “Saved” songs are very similar to the album versions. It’s almost purely a matter of the passion and life that Dylan and the musicians provide on stage… and that mysteriously was missing in the studio.
But I almost forgot: the album opens with a wonderful acapella version of the country hymn “A Satisfied Mind”. So good that when I first heard “Saved” (long before Trouble No More was released), I think it led me to like the whole album more than I do now.
Since we now do have Trouble No More, I’m going to essentially pretend that “Saved” doesn’t exist. I’ll set down my thoughts about Trouble No More soon.