I grew up in the American midwest, so Bob Seger was an early and immediate member of my rock and roll firmament. Seger is to the midwest as Springsteen is to the northeast. I think it was Bob Dylan, on his Theme Time Radio Hour, who said it best when he said, “A lot of people consider Bob Seger a poor man’s Bruce Springsteen, but I always considered Bruce Springsteen a rich man’s Bob Seger.” I never thought Seger would do anything I would review on B&V but last Friday saw the release of his new album, I Knew You When. I sprung for the deluxe version and the three extra bonus tracks. My wife, the Rock Chick, despises Seger, so I literally had to listen to and review this album in secret…
Seger’s early career was marred by shoddy production and non-existent support from his record companies. Despite his mammoth talent, the guy couldn’t catch a break. He put out a string of really strong albums, from Mongrel (1970) to Back In ’72 (1972, duh), Seven (1974) and Beautiful Loser (1975). None of which ever really broke him outside of his home base of Detroit. He appears to want to forget about all those great albums as they remain unavailable for purchase anywhere. I’ve mused as to why he won’t release those early records in these very pages, Conspiracy Theory: Who Is Holding Bob Seger’s Early LPs Hostage?. It wasn’t until Seger’s monumental live LP with his backing band The Silver Bullet Band, Live Bullet (1976), that Seger finally broke nationally. After that he released a string of albums that cemented his legacy as one of the great ones: Night Moves (1976), Stranger In Town (1978), Against The Wind (1980) and The Distance (1982). He even had time to squeeze out another fantastic live album with The Silver Bullet Band, Nine Tonight (1981).
Stranger In Town was the album where I got on the bandwagon. My sainted grandmother on my mom’s side bought me the album for Christmas. I’d had it on my wishlist. She had a number of records to choose from and she chose Stranger In Town because she said Bob Seger had nice eyes. I don’t know about that, but the music on that record was simply phenomenal. I saw Seger for the first time on the Against The Wind tour (Bob Seger’s KC 1980 Concert, Jack Daniels, & My Mom’s Knee). It was an amazing show and I’ll never forget the virtuoso playing of the Silver Bullet Band’s lead guitarist Drew Abbott. It’s rare I’m lucky enough to catch an artist at his zenith but I did that night.
Unfortunately, the 80s seemed to confuse Seger, as it did a lot of artists. Synthesizers crept into his music for the first time on Like A Rock (1986). That was the first album that showed some cracks in Seger’s impeccable songwriting. There were still some great tracks but the album as a whole was pretty uneven. The best song on that whole album was a B-side cover of Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.” (Seger’s straight ahead rock has much in common with CCR, so it was a fit). The Silver Bullet Band was also pretty fractured by that time. Only keyboardist Craig Frost, bassist Chris Campbell and intrepid sax player Alto Reed remained in the band. Everybody else had quit or had been fired. After Like A Rock, the wheels really came off. If the 80s had been bad to Seger, the 90s were worse. The Fire Inside (1991) was just plain bad, and worse it was judge-y and preachy in places. It’s a Mystery (1995) was stunningly awful and was for the most part, unlistenable. I’m not sure what went wrong.
Seger went into semi-retirement. He stopped recording or touring for over a decade. It wasn’t until 2006 that he re-emerged with what was described as a “comeback” album, Face The Promise. I picked that album up and it’s where I gave up on Seger once and for all. Despite all the celebratory “comeback” talk, there was nothing on that album that I could connect with. The odious presence of Kid Rock and Patty Loveless didn’t help either. Seger’s voice just didn’t seem the same. It wasn’t the ragged instrument that say, Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen’s voices became in their later careers, but something was off. It only got worse when Ride Out came out three years ago. I listened once, and moved on.
In large part for me, Seger’s music was resigned to the patina of the past. But then, a few months back, he put out a tribute single for his old friend from Detroit, the Eagles’ Glenn Frey Bob Seger’s Tribute Single For Eagles’ Glenn Frey: “Glenn Song”. And while it wasn’t a great, great song, Seger admitted it was never meant to be commercial, I thought it was a lovely gesture. Those guys had been friends for a long time. Frey plays the awesome guitar solo on “Til It Shines” from Stranger. It sparked my interest in Seger again, and that hadn’t happened in a long time. I knew an album was coming but I really didn’t pay that much attention. I mean, it’s been thirty years since I cared.
But then I was riding in my car and I heard the first single from I Knew You When, and I was stunned to hear Seger covering Lou Reed’s “Busload of Faith,” from Reed’s masterpiece New York. If anybody had told me thirty years ago that Seger would be covering Lou Reed, I’d have laughed at you. And I will admit, despite the fact I thought I was done with Seger, that single pulled me back in. In the interest of full disclosure, Seger changed the lyrics. He deleted an entire verse about murder, rape and abortion, which, who can blame him. There’s a line in Reed’s original version that goes, “You can’t depend on any churches, unless there’s real estate you want to buy,” which was a confusing swipe at the rapaciousness of most churches (I guess, I mean it’s Lou Reed, who knows). Seger changed it to “You can’t depend on the President, unless there’s real estate you want to buy,” which is an obvious swipe at our current POTUS. Seger gets a bad rap from the rock press because his fan base is from the “red states.” Just because his fans hail from out here in fly over country doesn’t mean ol’ Bob Seger is anything but an old hippy. He’s never been as outspoken as Bruce Springsteen or Jackson Browne, but by covering this song, I think he’s letting us know where he stands. I like the song. Seger does a strong version. Nobody will ever match the venom of Lou Reed’s original, but it’s a great track.
After hearing “Busload of Faith,” I really wanted to love this album. Unfortunately I’d compare it to John Mellencamp’s last album, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies. There’s some good music here, but as a whole the album doesn’t quite click for me. Seger recorded the album with a bunch of Nashville studio guys. Gone are the days when he recorded half an album with the Silver Bullet Band and half with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. And I don’t know, maybe it’s because he’s using studio pros, some of these performances just seem bloodless. Many of the rockers, like “The Sea Inside” or “Runaway Train” are plodding. In the latter track, he makes the ill-advised decision to break into a spoken word section… never a good idea, unless you’re Elvis Presley. Seger’s production oddly doesn’t put enough air into the rockers, they don’t have space to breath.
I will say, the opening cut, the rocker “Gracile” which is a word I had to look up on Webster’s Dictionary site, is a great start. There is even a nice guitar solo. For some reason it conjured memories of cuts off of Mongrel, which in my opinion was Seger’s hardest rocking album. “Gracile” leads into “Busload of Faith” and then into a song “Highway” which is another of the better rock tunes. Seger is in finer voice than I’ve heard him in a long time. Maybe he finally quit smoking. The title track, like “Glenn’s Song” is clearly another tribute to his lost friend, Glenn Frey a man with “dangerous charisma.” It’s an “Against The Wind” type acoustic, mid tempo song and it’s the best thing here. His sense of loss over his friend is palpable. It’s a beautiful song, sung beautifully.
Alas, after those first four tracks, the album starts to lose steam. The ballad, “I’ll Remember You” is overly-labored and somewhat dull. Ballads used to be Seger’s stock in trade, so I was a little surprised that this one left me cold. He covers Leonard Cohen’s song “Democracy” and it’s complete with fiddle, fife and drum. It’s a confusing choice to me. It’s not bad, it’s just not something I could connect with. If you’re going to cover Leonard, you need to bring something special to the tune. “Marie” is another ballad, this time with a Spanish flair, and it’s better than “I’ll Remember You,” but I’ve heard so many better Seger ballads.
The first half of this record is the best stuff Seger has put out in years. Unfortunately the album loses momentum in the back half. Of the bonus tracks, you’ll find “Glenn’s Song” and another good upbeat track, “Forward Into The Past,” which might have been a better title for the album… “Blue Ridge” has some interesting instrumentation. Overall I’d say the bonus tracks are worth the purchase. While I can’t recommend this album as a whole, I will say, there is more to be interested in here than anything Seger has done in years. This might be his swan song, or it might be the sign of a rebirth. Don’t get me wrong, I realize most of these songs were written years ago but if the guy has some strong material in the vaults and wants to record it, I’m all ears. Besides, when I think about it, maybe Grandma was right… Seger still has nice eyes…