I listened to Bob Seger’s new album Ride Out the only proper way one should listen to a Bob Seger album — blasting down a Michigan highway with the volume cranked and the wind whipping through my hair.
Sure, my ride isn’t some souped-up Buick Electra. It’s a dinged-up Saturn Ion that has all the handling power of a Boston whaler in choppy water. Also, I keep getting notices from General Motors reminding me that if I don’t get the ignition fixed soon, this duct-taped-together beaut just might explode in my face. And sure, the highway is all torn to shit with potholes because our state government is currently the stupidest collection of scum-sucking morons ever to stand on hind legs. You could also find the limp response of my receding hairline to the wind to be lacking. But hell, it’s not like Ride Out is Live Bullet (1976) or something.
It might be hard for you non-Michiganders truly to fathom what Bob Seger means to this area. I suppose the only region of the country that has a similar demigod of American with a capital A, granite-hewn rock & roll would be New Jersey, home to Eddie Wilson from Eddie and the Cruisers (1983) (and Eddie and The Cruisers II: Eddie Lives! (1989). For everybody else, let me try and put this into perspective. Seger is the kind of man who, when a woman from Flint, Michigan, gets out of a five-year coma, the first thing she wants to do is go see him in concert. At the very beginning of that clip, the newscaster reveals that her mom went on a date with Bob Seger. Guess what? In Michigan, everybody’smom has gone on a date with Bob Seger. Everybody’s cool uncle once partied hard with the Silver Bullet Band after some legendary Cobo Hall throwdown. These folk tales and half-remembered, Stroh’s-infused reveries have become the sacred stories Segerites pass around at backyard parties and moored pontoon boats throughout the whole state.
And it’s not just white, blue-collar suburbanites, Chevy truck-owners and horny moms who respect him (although if I’m being honest, that’s about 98 percent of his fanbase). Growing up in Detroit in the 1980s, I didn’t hear much Bob Seger or rock & roll. It was a steady radio diet of Quiet Storm R&B and whatever the Fat Boys were up to. That is, until 1987 and the release of Beverly Hills Cop II. Everybody in Detroit loved Beverly Hills Cop II and therefore everybody loved Seger’s contribution to the soundtrack, “Shakedown.” I sure did. I remember seeing that video and thinking that the bearded man with the corny moves and the movie clips of ladies’ butts, guns being shot and Eddie Murphy wearing a Detroit Lions jacket were pretty cool. My tape dub off the radio is still around my house somewhere, and I bet that it’s so warped and distorted from constant play and rewind it would probably make for a pretty hip boutique noise-label release. A Michigan record snob would happily file that next to his Smokin’ O.P.’s (1972) limited editions because, get this, even the hipsters here love Bob Seger, and not even ironically. They’re right of course. “2 + 2 = ?” is a monster.
But wait, there’s more! Even the dispossessed expatriate holds onto his songs like an axle grease-scented security blanket. I know a lot of people who have moved to California from here. They are legion, because Michigan is either a) a dream you wake up from, b) akin to the Garden of Eden, in that all that is sullied must be thrown out of it, or c) an economically depressed winter wasteland run by a bunch of goons more concerned with stopping two dudes from getting married than fixing our goddamned roads. Every one of them considers “Hollywood Nights” to be their own personal theme song. Just like every person who ever got to third base in an automobile in Michigan cherishes “Night Moves” and every two-bit musician from Manistique to Luna Pier wishes their life could be as profound as “Turn the Page.”
OK, so Bob Seger is a living monument to majestic omnipotence that cries rock classics, pisses hits and occasionally farts out songs that soundtrack images of eagles soaring over wheat fields in truck commercials in perpetuity. What about Ride Out?
Four of the 10 songs are covers. The first single “Detroit Made,” originally by John Hiatt, is a blustery good time. I mean, c’mon! A song so chock-a-block full of car and girl imagery it barrels right through self-parody and loops around again to brake on a dime of perfect quintessence. It really is a showcase for Seger’s aged-like-fine-Ripple voice. I read some reviews where they think his voice is shot, but I love the gravel and grit, and I think many of the country-tinged songs on the album suit him well. I appreciate a vocalist who fully inhabits his voice, no matter what age, and Seger still has a fine old duplex of a voice to inhabit. His version of the Woody Guthrie-by-way-of-Jeff-Tweedy-and-Jay-Bennett song “California Stars” is a corker and “Hey Gypsy” (an original) has a nice simmer.
Make no mistake, though, this is dad-rock in excelsis. Primo grandad-rock at this juncture. This album won’t be the one you’ll use to convince people to join your Segerite Church. The production is pretty airless and shiny in a slightly jarring way. This isn’t some rugged reinvention, but it’s also not some “put icon in the studio with some young freshness and have them murder the Great American Songbook together” maneuver either. It’s amiable and workmanlike in its charms, and while I could do with one more go-round where he really leaves everything on the floor, this will have to do.
When you’re a rocker and sliding into semi-retirement, it seems inevitable to bring in the fiddle players and slow down to a countrified pace, which for the majority of Ride Out , Seger does. The British call this stuff “Americana.” If he were a younger man dressed like a Civil War enthusiast, someone could call it “Alt Country.” It might have been called a straight-up country record 20 years ago, but not now. Modern country stations play songs that, to these ears, sound like the unholy alliance of Jock Jams, the Rappin’ Duke, and Garth Brooks’ fever dreams. You know, kinda like Kid Rock circa “Cowboy.” Except, in a strange twist, Kid Rock seems to want nothing more these days than to sound exactly like Bob Seger. Hell, I thought “Born Free” was a Bob Seger song. It probably doesn’t help that it soundtracks a Chevy commercial or that Bob Seger himself played piano on Kid’s Born Free album (2010).
I wonder if that’s the fate of all musicians from Michigan? Perhaps, like Kid Rock, we’ll recognize there’s no use in fighting Seger’s enormous influence and all become simulacrums of our state’s favorite son. If that’s the case, I’ll have to grow a beard, trade in my Saturn for some real Detroit muscle, pave the roads and turn the page. Future moms of Michigan, take heed.