The Freelance Mentalists.
Sunday, September 09, 2007
  Turn The Page And other Delights (Part 1)
By Don Allred
"Everything I do is just a little wrong,
Everyday for me is the same,
Everyone I know is getting' in my face,
And I only got myself to blame."
That's Bob Seger, just before declaring (with a little swagger) that
he's about to "Wreck This Heart," the first track on Face The Promise,
his first album of all-new material since 1995's It's A Mystery.. As
on that album, Seger's pissed. But this new set is not divided into
confrontational social commentary versus near-greeting-card verses
about the joys of family life. No, Face The Promise is a richer mix,
emotionally and sonically. At 61, Seger knows there's enough blame to
go around, and for what. But he also knows how far knowing that will
get you, so "Wreck This Heart," for instance, is less about
self-recrimination than it is a pretext to cut loose, via guitars,
bass and drums. (Bits of keyboard on some tracks, but the air is
finally free of antiseptic, Roy Bittanesque billows and pillows.
Mainly and appropriately, since much of mainstream pop country now
taps 70s hard rock, you get A-List Nashville Cats. J.T. Corenflos,
whoo-hoo!) Und also the historically inevitable duet with Kid Rock:
"Real Mean Bottle," written by Vince Gill, about Merle Haggard,
ummkay? It's real good, honkies tonky honkin' down the highway. Yet
there's no macho nostalgia either. That's right: Bob Seger, of all
people, is not doing nostalgia anymore.
Well, not as much, anyway. But it's basically a familiar approach,
and he can't help invoking comparisons, mostly favorable. Although,
Face The Promise does have a few tamer examples of his patented
medium-speed numbers, not quite ballads: "Seger mediums," he calls
them. As he once admitted, "They were a challenge to write, now
they've become formulaic."
But Seger's always been ready to teach us, on his recordings and in
his overall career, about the trickiness of adapting, the need to
remain unsettled. His earliest known songs bear this out, as collected
on The Singles 1966-1967, a deleleted, but still findable, Capitol
Records release. Seger's first single, "East Side Story," is about the
inevitable rise and fall of a novice thief, who brags about his
ability to deal with soft, rich folks. The song stomps along in the
face of doom, punkily enough. Attitude is less predictably employed in
his second single, "Ballad Of The Yellow Berets." In effect, its
gleeful delivery is as much a takeoff on Sgt. Barry Sadler's solemnly
monotonous original, "Ballad Of The Green Berets," as it is on the
"yellow" mid-60s Vietnam War protestors. But then the third single,
"Persecution Smith, " shows up, and Seger's music seems to take a
great leap forward, forcibly enough.
"Persecution Smith" speeds along, like Bob Dylan's contemporaneous
"Subterranean Homesick Blues." The antique folk-rock style is still
startling: the song, like its protagonist, jangles along, in a stiff,
rusty, but tireless way. Smith is a compulsively radical reactionary,
the embodiment of entropy, but human enough to torture himself and
everybody else he can reach. The crudeness of the song makes young
Seger's vision more unsettling, more believable: "Persecution Smith"
is just plain old, and getting older all the time. "He's here, he's
there, he's everywhere" seems more true than corny, in this case,
because Smith infiltrates everything, like dust.
This kind of dust forms the question mark in the title of the fourth
single, "2 + 2=?" In "East Side Story, " the fallen bad boy's
girlfriend cried, because he died like she knew he would. In this
song, the girl cries because her boy dies in a war, and "she just
doesn't understand." How could she not understand? What is there to
not understand? Doesn't she know there's a war on? What kind of girl
is this, what kind of country, what kind of war, if she doesn't know?
In 1971, Seger released an album, Mongrel, about the adventures of a
long-haired misfit, determined to strut his stuff in the gray teeth of
conformity. "You can call me Lucifer, if you think you should, but I
know I'm good!" Yet such cockiness has to deal with killjoys, the
ones who are "Leanin' On My Dream," in which the narrator finally
joins the protestors, when he gets his own draft notice. "Lord, you
shoulda heard me scream!" He doesn't claim to be any better than the
"Yellow Berets, " and he's no less stubborn than the vicious
reactionaries in "Looking Back": "Too many people lookin' back!"
Although "Looking Back" was recorded along with the tracks that
appeared on Mongrel, it first appeared as a stray single. Its LP debut
was on Seger's 1976 concert album, Live Bullet, the commercial
breakthrough of which really was a case of too many people looking
back. That's where he became a merchant of rock nostalgia, and
something of an addict, which may well have affected his ability to
check the quality of the goods, though his masterpiece, Night Moves,
appeared the same year, and it addressed the craving for nostalgia,
tracing the dusty, creeping awareness of age. From getting a kick out
of remembering "workin' on our night moves," to waking up and
thinking, "Ain't it funny how the night moves," which needs no
question mark, because it's a feeling the singer already knows too
well. And what happens when you guard your hard-won too well, so there
just isn't so much "left to lose."
The follow-up, Stranger In Town, was pursued through fun "Hollywood
Nights," by the perfect urn of "Still The Same," eyes wide open as he
slides gently downhill through the cliches, through "Feel Like A
Number," where, as Robert Christgau says, "The banal critique of
quantification is renewed by Seger's measured intensity." (Just as
"Turn The Page," is about watching and otherwise participating in
mechanical reproduction of self, with an appropriately spooked,
subdued vocal, typically run over by big mouth James Hetfield, who
sneered at Seger, who provided him with a radio hit cover, probably a
bigger hit than any Het' up originals.)Yeah, "measured intensity,"
the better side of Eliot's "I have measured out my life in coffee
spoons," and this affinity is one of the reasons he got lured so far
into the production cycle. (That, and the downwardly mobile middle
class [he and his mother and older brother were abandoned by his
work-drink cycling, multi-instrumentalist/bandleader/Ford Motor
company medic/medial school dropout father] equivalent of what Rodney
Crowell diagnosed as his own "sharecrop mentality.") Not that people
from quite different backgrounds don't get squeezed as well, and don't
get dragged along through a lot of other stuff that's leaning on their
own dreams. Negotiate, work within the system, pick your battles, then
dig in your heels, even if you get stiff enough that you get dragged
some more, even when there's a good detour. Count it out, here we go.
Later, he would imagine being young and proud and "Making
Thunderbirds" ("in '55", when he was 10).
Yeah, so, as you probably know too well, he (and possibly you, and
certainly I) indulged his mix of autumnal (yet sometimes sufficiently
rocking) insight and mere mush for many a year, many a multi-platinum
record.
 
  Turn The Page And O.D.(Pt. 2)
TURN THE PAGE AND O.D. (PT. 2)
It's A Mystery only went gold, but Seger kept trying to make another
album of (even sharper) social commentary, because he became a father
at forty-seven, and while that was his self-stated reason for
"retiring," to take care of his kids, he's got a lot to sort out and
sing about, to his family, to himself, to whoever listens. He's got a
new song about war: "No More" is the title, and the point. He sounds,
not necessarily older than on most of Face The Promise (where the
raspy wailing top end of his range is gone, or obscured by clouds),
but he's especially weary on this track. He's doggedly dog-tired of
having to sing about war; he remembers previous occasions all too
well. And that's a good cure for nostalgia: a strong memory. PS: in
the middle of this our life's journey toward Face The Promise
[1997-2006], came 2003's Greatest Hits 2. Key might well be track 4,
"Beautiful Loser." Little Brother Underdog stops worrying long enough
to kid and look quizzically at his His Way of getting in even or
especially the hard or anyway long way. And does indeed scoop up some
beautiful losers, lost from the spotlight: prime but mere album
tracks, not hot singles; hot but not overplayed singles; soundtrack
contributions; covers/derivations; and stuff that would have been good
on Face, but he'd ditched that and started over, knew he already had
tons of stuff to chose from. It all sounds great, in this context.
Even track 1, "Understanding," from the Teachers soundtrack, though
boring, is thematically apt, and leaves no bad (or other) aftertaste,
as the continuity quickly kicks on. The Night Moves blues karma guy,
who went back to "Mainstreet," as carved into the great shining
mausoleum of Greatest Hits Une, is now sweating "Fire Down Below, "
and needs to be reassured by the enlightened butt respectors of "Watch
Her Strut." (GH1 released in 1994, opened to the no-fault collision
insurance of "Roll Me Away," but the only exit was via Rick Vito's
great, groaning slide solo, which finally discharged or at least
dislodged the younger-self-as-ancestor worship of "Like A Rock." Even
"Night Moves" didn't sound as good in this context, where the midnight
insights seemingly led to ever stiffer rituals.)
Meanwhile, back on GH2, inspired derivations x departures incl.
"Sunspot [Sahmspot] Baby," big sad eyes, drawls, draws for the bit o
honey who's ripped off Underdawg. Savors the crime scene details of
Broocian but dab hand "Manhattan," just showing the younger geezer how
to write and sing one. Ditto the Waits-written but minimally mannered
"New Coat Of Paint." Wailing in the tick-tock machine of Rodney
Crowell's "Blame It On The Moon." (Hey, an actual hit on GH2; getting
technical again, are we!) Self-writ duet with Martina McBride,
"Chances Are," gloriously. (This is how it's done, Kenny Rogers.) On
"Satisfied," he confides he needs some truth, some dignity, some
beauty, "But meanwhile, I need a place to hide." On "Tomorrow," he
can't tell you what happens when/if "neutrinos have mass," or about
anything else up ahead, but suggests the utilization of "the sports
section, the weather channel, a good battery." Did all that, and now
there's a new album after all! And almost as good as this, or close
enough, if you've got both, and other good stuff.
 

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