For a man with such a complicated relationship with his own discography (several early albums have never been released on CD, never mind on heavyweight 180g audiophile vinyl), veteran American singer-songwriter Bob Seger seems content enough to return to the past in order to preserve his future. For, like his excellent 2014 album Ride Out, his latest, I Knew You When, is a mixed bag of covers, new songs, and old material pulled from the archive and thoroughly defibrillated.
Seger is sounding gruff these days. The registers he sings in are lower than in his heyday, he’s still unmistakably Seger, but now he’s far more likely to half-sing, half-talk his way through a song than open up the full Hollywood Nights-style throttle. That’s not to say Seger is lacking fight; a couple of draw-your-own-conclusion inclusions appear to take a swipe at fellow golfer and current tenant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, Donald Trump. The first is a lively cover of Lou Reed’s Busload Of Faith, which changes the original’s ‘You can’t depend on any churches, unless there’s real estate you want to buy’ to ‘You can’t depend on the president, unless there’s real estate you want to buy.’ The second is a largely faithful version of Leonard Cohen’s Democracy – a song that has shepherded both Bill Clinton and Bernie Sanders on stage in the past – where the line ‘Democracy is coming to the USA’ suddenly sounds more barbed than the author of the original probably intended.
The biggest surprise on the record is The Sea Inside, originally intended for Ride Out. It’s a song that churns with malevolence, with Bonham-esque tom-tom rolls and Kashmir-style strings that swoop in to heighten the air of mystery. Similarly unlikely is Marie, an anguished love song brightened by cello and tumbling Spanish guitar. Glenn Song is a slow, genuinely mournful tribute to the late Glenn Frey, who grew up with Seger in Detroit, while I’ll Remember You is Seger doing what he does better than almost anyone: a gospel-tinged ballad of the sort that originally cemented his command over arena crowds. Elsewhere, Runaway Train is a sub-ZZ Top boogie that should probably have remained in cold storage, while Blue Ridge sounds like Jimmy Buffet clumsily attempting a country version of The Kinks’ Come Dancing.
Overall the album comes together in somewhat less cohesive fashion than Ride Out, and listeners may end up wishing for a Seger to take firmer grip on the steering wheel for one final album. Does anyone have Rick Rubin’s number?