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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Bob Dylan: Saved


1) A Satisfied Mind; 2) Saved; 3) Covenant Woman; 4) What Can I Do For You?; 5) Solid Rock; 6) Pressing On; 7) In The Garden; 8) Saving Grace; 9) Are You Ready.

In the thrilling, hook-filled, popcorn-blockbuster-size Saga of Bob Dylan, Saved holds a special place. As an autonomous album of the gospel persuasion, I would not dare recommend it even to a diehard Christian (although, it is true, quite a few diehard Christians have used it as a pretext to show how even the greatest of the «youth rebels» eventually come to terms with God, suitably omitting the last thirty years of Mr. Zimmerman's career). As a separate chapter in the life of Bob Dylan, the self-experimenter, it has its fascinating points.

At some moment in time, Dylan must have understood, or perhaps some of his newly found re­ligious friends made him understand, that Slow Train Coming did not solve his problem — that it was a Christian album in name, but a Dylan album at heart. If the true Christian ideal be about «losing yourself in Christ», then Slow Train certainly showed none of that. ʽI Believe In Youʼ, yes, but that wasn't enough — too much of it still sounded like the same old angry Dylan, blasting off firecrackers in Old Testament rather than New Testament mode: too much bitterness and fury, not enough love, too much of an opposition between ʽmeʼ and ʽthemʼ, not enough unity between ʽmeʼ and ʽHimʼ. Basically, what the man really needed was to make an album that would be as non-Dylan as possible: only then would the initiation be complete.

From that point of view, Saved is a tremendous success. Bob retains Wexler and Barry Beckett as co-producers, but dismisses Knopfler (who probably would have even less interest playing on a full-scale gospel record than on Slow Train) and allows none of his backing players to show any signs of ardent individuality. No less than four ladies on backing vocals now form a strong gospel choir, present and active on most of the songs — and each and every song is about Jesus, usually from a personal (ʽme and Himʼ) rather than universal (ʽHim and the worldʼ) perspective, although ʽIn The Gardenʼ does stress the issue of a general lack of faith, be it then or now.

Consequently and inevitably, Saved is the «worst» Dylan album up to that point — because it simply does not strive to be a «Dylan album», quite intentionally so. One could wonder what it is that actually makes it so much worse than, say, Self Portrait, another quintessential «demolition of image» record — but, all reservations made, Self Portrait was very much a Dylan album, if only because it made so many unpredictable twists and took so many risky chances. Saved, how­ever, is built entirely upon the premise that one does not fool around with Him; one merely ack­nowledges one's own insignificance in His presence. "You have given everything to me / What can I do for You?... You have laid down your life for me / What can I do for You?"

«...well, how about it, Bob — I have laid down My life for you, and the natural thing for you to do in return is to record a generally boring, if sincere-sounding, album of generic gospel tunes, put it on the market and leave the rest to me; I can guarantee you that it will hit No. 3 on the UK charts, although I am not so sure about American sales — these suckers may worship me more ardently than UK people, but they are simply not used to buying Christian albums from Minnesotan Jews, you know, so I cannot guarantee anything higher than No. 24. Yet do not worry: between the two of us, our mutual brand will always be failproof. At least we have better taste than Jerry Falwell...»

Petty blasphemy aside, Dylan obviously did not do this album for the money, but, like most «Christian rock», it shares the same problems — too much formulaic preaching, too little artistic value. Of the «gospel rockers», there is not a single song that has even a single merit over the pre­dictable «well, they got a tight, professional band carrying the groove». Of the «gospel soulsters», I can only name the inspiring harmonica breaks in ʽWhat Can I Do For You?ʼ (first time in ages Bob blows his instrument with such tremendous verve, as if Jesus' very resurrection depended on the wave amplitude), and ʽIn The Gardenʼ actually has real tension and a suspenseful buildup, with some inventive bass work from Tim Drummond. These moments are rare, but important: they show that some creativity was involved and that, even when Dylan is consciously striving to make the blandest album ever recorded, he still tends to slip into experimental mode every now and then. Talent is hard to bury.

On the other hand, one must admit that he almost ends up blowing his cover with a song like ʽCovenant Womanʼ — if you are a responsible Christian, you will surely blush at the ambi­gu­ousness of such lyrics as "Covenant woman / Intimate little girl / Who knows those most secret things of me / That are hidden from the world". Is that what he means by the earlier line "way up yonder, great will be your reward"? I don't know — I'm a big Dylan admirer, and even I don't care much about knowing the most secret things of him that are hidden from the world, much less a «covenant woman», who seems to be forming a suspicious threesome here, dividing her atten­tion between the protagonist and the Lord. Altogether, a very confusing song — one on which Bob tried a different lyrical approach, and ended up with a whirlygig of sincerity, silliness, and parody, probably without meaning it.

But on the whole, there is no intrigue to Saved. Its objective was to erase personality, and for the most part, it succeeds. As a historical curio — a de-characterized album from one of the strongest characters in art history — it deserves to be heard once, but, unlike the beginning and the end of Bob's «Christian trilogy», it has never held any replay value for me. Rumor has it that Bob was seriously bent on proselytizing at the time (even trying to convert Jerry Wexler), but Slow Train Coming, with its anti-sinner agenda and Knopfler guitar, went way farther in converting me than this bland, boringly prescribed prostration before Jesus. I have no interest in doubting Bob's sin­cerity, or denying the «point» of Saved — I just do not see why this point had to be carried in music stores and bear a price tag. It may well be that Christianity helped pull Bob out of his cri­sis, restore him to sanity, save him from drugs / alcohol / suicide, etc., and that Saved was his honest «thank you». But even if it really was like that, truly, it's all between those two guys — one here on Earth, the other one there in singularity. I don't wanna be a part of it. Are you ready for the saving grace? Then press on to the solid rock. What can I do for you, Mr. Zimmerman? Only show my sincerity in giving Saved a thumbs down — first one in Dylan history. If it is not a failure, it is an insult. If it is not an insult, it is a failure.

Check "Saved" (CD) on Amazon

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