If this weren't Detroit but Gainesville, Fla., or Fresno, Calif., or Tucumcari, N.M., Bob Seger might be just another Steve Miller. He'd be another beard on the radio, an interchangeable classic rocker providing the soundtrack to your oil change. But this is Detroit, and around here, the Seeg is revered. It's larger than his localized lyrics ("Twelve hours out of Mackinaw City/Stopped in a bar to have a brew...") or those stories that seemingly everyone in Michigan has, like the one my ex-girlfriend used to tell about a younger, rougher Seger showing up at her dad's place up North in the middle of the night to smoke cigarettes and pass around the bottle and a guitar. For many of us in Michigan, it's the very idea of Seger that we claim ownership of a guy not very far removed from the factory floor or local bar, who fought his way to respect and stardom without losing his regional connective tissue or sure ear for the plain speech and calloused dreams of the Upper Midwest.
Face the Promise proves that Bob Seger still has his ear to the ground. But it’s also his return to recording after a considerable hiatus, and released into a rock ’n’ roll climate very different than what surrounded his creative high-water mark of the late 1970s. Features editor Brian Smith and I tackled the nature of Seger and his new record in this edition of critic vs. critic. —Johnny Loftus
LOFTUS: Face the Promise is what everyone wanted from Bob Seger, an enjoyably serviceable Midwestern rock record that revisits a few of his most well-known melodies "Wait for Me" keeps threatening to drift into "Against the Wind" and hits both the harder and softer sides of his signature sound. It'll sell a bunch of units to his core audience, as well as casual classic rock fans. But it's also what we should expect from a respected older rocker returning to recording. And I'm glad it's that, since his only other options would have been to a) hire Kid Rock as a producer, and use the Kid's band, which would have been a nightmare, and probably make Seger sound like a 61-year old dude trying desperately to stay relevant (cue the leather pants) or b) do the Johnny Cash-Rick Rubin route and strip everything away, go for the critical favorite vote.
SMITH: Well, there's something to be said for the Rick Rubin, bare-bones route. His ability to find the person within, then record that voice is what makes him great. I mean, 12 Songs (Neil Diamond's 2005 record with Rubin) was brilliant, and I still can't believe so many reviewers hated it. Here was a millionaire songwriter whose career was built on, basically, a perceived schlock, but he came off on that record sounding like some dude on a porch singing songs about things he actually lived through, and cares about.
My problem with Face the Promise is that the production is sometimes so heavy-handed and thick, the man in the song gets lost. But fortunately he's writing for those who grew up with him, those who, hopefully, still buy records. He also knows there isn't a single twentysomething rock 'n' roll band today that can touch Seeg's '60s era, when he was this white guy who sounded black because he grew up on Detroit radio and applied his gutbucket voice to tortured R&B/bar-band chord changes. Seger's way too smart to attempt relevancy by aping the peach fuzz dips of today who are only trying to ape his old self.
LOFTUS: All his fans have ever wanted from Seger was an acknowledgement of his legacy in song form not some shitty contemporary facelift on his trad sound, but an album that found the man himself exploring those well-worn, rutty old songwriting two-tracks. And this record does that, despite that occasionally heavy-handed production you mentioned. (Strings over the Billy Joe Royal tumble of "No More"? Uh ...)
SMITH: Right. Certain songs on here beg of 1978, particularly the bummer-blues trudge of "Won't Stop" yow, that one sounds like a tune he forgot to write. And "No More" could bookend "Like a Rock," only the Seeg's voice has lost its top end, and instead is all gravelly low tones and mid-range, which is great because he sounds his age. But the Vince Gill-penned "Real Mean Bottle" is completely marred by Kid Rock's verse exchanges and chorus harmonies. That song is so obviously calculated for the country charts. But, hey, if it worked for Jon Bon Jovi ...
LOFTUS: "Real Mean Bottle" is the country radio format single without a doubt. The motherfuckin' Kid already jumped on country with "Picture," his 2002 duet with Sheryl Crow, and here he is again, with Seger on board, the both of them running through a middling number that originally appeared in 2003 as an album track on Gill's Next Big Thing. As honky-tonk, Vince's version is as slicked-back as his hair, and this remake isn't much ballsier it sounds like something Seger and Rock might bash out at some award show dinner, their bowties loosened and a can of Coors Light jammed in Kid's cummerbund. The point is: Why was this song chosen? Why didn't they do a gem from Seger's criminally un-reissued back catalog, or a David Allen Coe tune? There are better songs out there that would've had equal appeal to the country radio cabal.
SMITH: I could never understand Kid Rock's rise on the backs of Detroit blacks to appearing on stage in recent years backed by a Confederate flag, all Southern-rock and shit. And then there's his "country" side. You'd think Rock fans would say, "Wait a minute, I'm being manipulated and this guy suuuuuucks."
Anyway, Patty Loveless appears on Face the Promise, too. "The Answer's in the Question" is another crossover hopeful.
LOFTUS: I've always like Patty's voice. She ends every line with a vocal wrinkle that's classic country heartbreak wrapped into one syllable. But "Question" doesn't really grab me overall.
SMITH: You know, with Seger aging so gracefully, a step toward Nashville could be plausible. Going Nashville could be the new pension plan for rockers past their glory years.
LOFTUS: Didn't we say that "Going Rubin" was the new pension plan for those faded glory rockers? Still, if Nashville does turn out to be the Seeg's patron in his golden years, let's hope it's good Nashville and not Big & Rich Nashville, because "Are You" on Promise sort of has that calculated, too processed "Comin' to Your City" feel, and that's why it's one of this record's few outright stinkers.
SMITH: I agree. I think the best songs here are those that stream straight from the mid-'70s, with the overwrought sentiments and piano-acoustic guitar lilts, such as "Wait for Me" and "No Matter Who You Are." The forays into country and the silly hard-rockers ("Face the Promise," "Are You," "Simplicity") give me the blahs, though "Face The Promise" does work as metaphor for a guy looking at death. Even in this record's downer moments, it's clear Seger isn't attempting to sound young.
LOFTUS: And that's the rub. With his undyed salt-and-pepper hair and well-fed paunch, Seger looks exactly like a guy in his early 60s should. In fact, he looks a lot like a guy that lives on my street. He looks and sounds like a regular guy, just as he always did. He's a regular human who will never emulate the snakeskin suits of Mick Jagger or the freakishly ripped abs of 56-year-old Joe Perry.
SMITH: One of the album's best features might be the bonus DVD, particularly the live performances of "Still the Same" and "Hollywood Nights," shot at some San Diego arena in '78. They're all yellowy from age, and the stage hues are hazy; Seger is the Working Man's Rock Star in long, feathered hair, vest and tight trou, but he's fucking on with that voice. He also has a never-ending supply of unironically mustachioed band members with white flairs, and a fleet of '70s porn-queen look-alikes singing backup. The crowd is unhinged, like how a proper rock show should be. What glory. I love those songs, and I don't care what anybody says.
LOFTUS: Yeah, "Still the Same." What a fucking jam. That piano that rides the beat, woah. It's the sound I want to hear whenever I walk into a bar up North, except for some reason it's always Staind cover bands or gawky white kids with bad acne trying to rap. You pretend it doesn't bother you, but you just want to explode.Johnny Loftus is the music editor of Metro Times. Brian Smith is features editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]