Of all Bob Dylan's public personae over the past nineteen years, none has more confounded his long-time admirers than his latest incarnation as a born-again Christian. Unveiling his new and obviously heartfelt beliefs on last year's Slow Train Coming, Dylan was a perfect caricature of a Bible-thumping convert, zealously proclaiming that "You either got faith or you got unbelief/And there ain't no neutral ground" and prophesying a day of judgment — coming soon, of course — "when men will beg God to kill them/And they won't be able to die."
Though producers Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett gave Dylan one of the cleanest sounds of his career — and Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler contributed the most lyrical electric guitar lines ever to grace a Dylan album — the result seemed curiously embalmed: a record bereft of the rhythmic exuberance that has always characterized this artist's best work. The songs themselves were graceless and chilly in their self-righteous certitude. Bob Dylan, whose search for modern moral connections once summed up an entire generation, had found the Answer: "Repent, for the end is near."
This ancient wheeze long ago failed the simple test of time, and the clunky fervor with which Dylan advanced it only made him sound ridiculous. Abandoning the greatest of human religious quests — the intellectual pilgrimage toward personal transcendence — Dylan settled for mere religion. His art, which arose out of human complexity and moral ambiguities, was drastically diminished. With a single leap of faith, he plummeted to the level of a spiritual pamphleteer. What made the Gospel According to Bob especially tough to take was his hook-line-and-sinker acceptance of the familiar fundamentalist litany, and his smugness in propounding it. Dylan hadn't simply found Jesus but seemed to imply that he had His home phone number as well.
Saved is a much more aesthetically gratifying LP than its predecessor, particularly because of the hope (mostly musical, I admit) it offers that Dylan may eventually rise above the arid confines of Biblical literalism. Maybe he'll evolve, maybe he'll just walk away. Whichever the case, stagnation has never been his style, and after Saved, there seems precious little left to say about salvation through dogma.
Lyrics aside, Dylan's band is sharper and more spirited than I thought possible after its sluggish playing on Saturday Night Live last year. Dire Straits drummer Pick Withers, who performed a mostly metronomic function on Slow Train Coming, has been replaced by rock & roll veteran Jim Keltner, whose controlled yet emphatic cooking covers every base without calling undue attention to itself. As a lead guitarist, Fred Tackett still seems severely limited (either by God or the arrangements), but he's amiably efficient and probably preferable to the departed Knopfler, whose rampant tastiness was ultimately more a distraction than an asset. Spooner Oldham's and Terry Young's keyboards interweave easily throughout most of Saved's nine tunes. With Keltner and bassist Tim Drummond irreverently goosing things along, the group actually approaches flat-out rock & roll on two cuts: the careening gospel raveup, "Saved," and the unabashedly syncopated "Solid Rock," which boasts a sinuous barroom riff that the Allman Brothers would feel right down-home with.
Perhaps the most likable aspect of Bob Dylan's genius has always been his ability to evoke the phantom strains of traditional American music, from country blues to gospel to good old rock & roll. At his most spectacularly effective (with the Band on The Basement Tapes, on the best parts of the Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid soundtrack) he seemed to conjure up the nation's historical heart with the strum of a few guitar chords. This gift — utterly absent from Slow Train Coming, which affected a faceless R&B ambiance — is again in evidence on Saved, particularly in the bravely eccentric, almost disembodied reading that Dylan gives the folk classic, "Satisfied Mind." He lays out the song's stately melody like a winding pilgrim's path through the wailing, tent-show melismatics of his three backup singers, Clydie King, Regina Havis and Mona Lisa Young.
Subtly gathering harmonic power behind Dylan's rough but finely felt vocal, "Saving Grace" is so persuasive on its own terms that one can disregard the lyrical lapses ("There's only one road, and it leads to Calvary") and accept the track as a genuinely moving paean to some nonspecific Providence. In a similar manner, the serenely stoic "Pressing On" (in part, a melodic descendant of the Band's "The Weight") utilizes a gentle gospel piano and some inspired lead and backup singing to make a simple statement of spiritual commitment, with Dylan acknowledging both his past and present in the lines: "Shake the dust off of your feet/Don't look back/Nothing can hold you down/Nothing that you lack." Such a generous observation may bode well for the future.
"Covenant Woman" could have been one of Bob Dylan's most engaging love songs. A gospel-tinged ballad written in Dylan's mid-Sixties chordal style, it posits a God who "must have loved me oh so much/To send me someone as fine as you." There's an American Gothic earnestness to such a sentiment that's rather winning. Yet the song is sunk when Dylan explains that among his reasons for loving this woman is the fact that she's "got a contract with the Lord/Way up yonder, great will be her reward." He sounds like the kind of guy who counts the spiritual spoons behind her back, and it's more than a little irritating.
"What Can I Do for You?" suffers from its flat-footed form of address (he's propositioning God, of course), but "In the Garden," which is also explicitly Biblical, is blessed with a lovely, billowing arrangement, and Dylan sings with stirring conviction. If nonbelievers could be converted by music alone, "In the Garden" would be the tune to do it.
"Are You Ready" is as close as Dylan comes to R&B on this record. His harmonica playing harks back to Little Walter, and the slightly claustrophobic production recalls that of Ray Charles' "Lonely Avenue" (thanks, no doubt, to Jerry Wexler, who produced Charles in his heyday). "Are ya ready to meet Jesus?" the singer asks. "Are ya where ya oughta be?/Will He know ya when He sees ya?/Or will He say, 'Depart from me'?/Am I ready?" Interestingly, Dylan leaves that last question unanswered.
The only miracle worth talking about here is Bob Dylan's artistic triumph — qualified though it may be — over his dogmatic theme. Musically, Saved may be Dylan's most encouraging album since Desire, yet it's nowhere near as good as it might have been were its star not hobbled by the received wisdom of his gospel-propagating cronies. Dylan doesn't stand much chance of becoming the white André Crouch (or even the next Roy Acuff, who was no slouch with a gospel number either), not just because he lacks the vocal equipment but because he's too inventive, too big for the genre. Because he's Dylan.
As born-again gospel LPs go. Saved is a work of some distinction. Now that Bob Dylan's had his shots at that old-time religion, perhaps his secular fans may be forgiven for hoping that this, too, shall pass.