Like STC it was recorded in a few days, and like STC it boasts Tim Drummond on bass, a trio of female backing vocalists (all but one the same members as before) and Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett on production duties. Musically, it couldn't be more different. Gone are the gentle piano grooves and tasteful Dire Straits guitar solos, to be replaced with the kind of rollicking gospel rock and modern spirituals that wouldn't seem out of place at a revival meeting.
Finally, the joy of the believer has made an appearance; Saved is a celebration of Bob's faith and personal redemption, filled with praise and gratitude rather than the serious, bland sermonising of its predecessor. That's not to say it's sermon-free, but Dylan's message is much better suited to the gospel idiom (it's one I'm used to hearing it from, at least) and therefore the pill is much sweeter. There's Hammond organ and gospel piano galore, courtesy of Terry Young and the legend that is Spooner Oldham (Saved is another Muscle Shoals production), and Jim Keltner's looser drumming style replaces that of the metronome that was Pick Withers. Fred Tackett's rockier guitar style takes over from the often antiseptic stylings of Mark Knopfler.
Things begin with a version of the country classic A Satisfied Mind, here acting as an introduction to the title track. Guitar doodles, a few piano chords plus lots of "mmms" and "yeahs" fill out this brief sketch, before the launch of Saved, a driving, sanctified rave-up co-written with Drummond. A twangy guitar riff and lively piano combine with Dylan's elation at being saved "By the blood of the lamb". As he tells us over and over how glad he is, there's even some tambourine shaking. It's the fastest-paced song on the album, designed to raise a roof or two, and while Bob is busy thanking God, I'm thanking him too, for letting Bob lighten up at last.
We're able to catch our breath as the tempo drops for the next two tracks. Covenant Woman is one of his most touching compositions to date, a song of love and gratitude featuring a beautiful vocal and sympathetic playing, particularly on the organ. This is followed by the startlingly heartfelt What Can I Do For You?, which with its silky backing vocals, emotional harmonica solos and undoubtedly genuine sentiment would easily make my Dylan Top Twenty list should I ever get round to compiling it.
We go back up a gear next for the upbeat Solid Rock, whose title perfectly describes its contents. Dylan articulates the strength of his faith with the help of the riff from the Allman Brothers' Midnight Rider and a great blues-rock guitar solo, his vocals enthusiastically mirrored by the female trio. It's at this point I have to confess a little prior familiarity with this album, which I rescued from a car boot sale last year: http://carbootvinyldiaries.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/hit-me-with-music.html In fact I liked Solid Rock so much that I used it as the opening track on my last cloudcast, which can be found here: https://www.mixcloud.com/CarBootVinylDiaries/car-boot-vinyl-diaries-episode-11/
Although Saved is less preachy than Slow Train Coming, biblical quotes abound. Pressing On references original sin, and also addresses those who doubt the existence of God. It's a stirring gospel belter with glorious backing vocals, although as the song builds, the ladies begin to wail and over-emote rather, drowning out Bob's own vocal. On the covers album 'Gotta Serve Somebody - The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan', the music and bvs on the Saved tracks are more muted, allowing the words to be more easily discerned. Still, Pressing On is a strong track, and the last of these to be found on Saved. That's not to say the final three songs don't have their good points, but they took a lot longer for me get into than Pressing On and the whole of Side 1.
Perhaps putting three plodders in a row was a bad idea. In The Garden discusses the story of the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and the betrayal of Christ, from the Gospels. The accompanying organ, smooth church choir backing vocals and pounding drums make a pleasant noise, but they aren't enough to compensate for the lack of melody. Saving Grace suffers similarly, and bluesy closer Are You Ready makes for a disappointing finale, letting the album just fizzle out, when Dylan usually finishes with something much more memorable.
Despite this unsatisfactory ending, I enjoyed Saved very much. I prefer its grittier, less 'produced' sound, and although the simplicity and directness of the words and the constant refrains might be uncomfortable for some, they certainly get the message across, and if you already enjoy gospel music this shouldn't present any new challenges. The personal lyrics make for a more inspired feel, and the fewer threats of damnation - less evangelising, more testifying - result in a more inspirational experience. Dylan's lingering 'holier-than-thou' self righteous attitude, as if he's feeling a bit smug for being specially selected over others to serve his god, can be irritating too, but this was not to last; it seems he mellowed a bit after the release of Saved, and the next concert tour featured many of his old secular songs mixed in with the new, billed as "A Musical Retrospective" that must have come as a relief to lots of fans.
Overall, I think that Saved is his most honest record yet. Whatever the cost to his career and image, Dylan made an album that expressed the way he really felt at the time, and his songs of worship are unselfconscious and instinctive. And that's the Dylan I like best.
*****BobBox price check*****
amazon.co.uk - £130.65 (free postage)
Discogs - from £97.63
Spin CDs - £119.99 (free postage)
Bob Dylan Official Store - £175.99
All prices correct on 22/07/2015