INITIAL HEARING: “Downtown Train” — Bob Seger
More populist/rust belt rocker than flat Americanaan, Bob Seger has always had a bit of the acoustic-tinged timber to his Motor City Brand of rock & roll. At a time when so many senior rockers declare their love of country, their yearning for real music, Seger joins the ranks of Springsteen, Mellencamp and to a lesser extent Petty for a record that leans towards the more organic roots notion of classic American songs.
Certainly there are few 70s anthems as wistful and innocent as “Night Moves,” a song where the acoustic guitar swells and haunts like the beating of the wings of pheasants flushed from where they’re hiding. It is winsome — that song of love stolen, learned and never forgotten — and Seger’s dusty, knowing voice heightens the contrast from the thrill of new experience to the yearning of looking back.
Theoretically, that’s fertile ground for the Detroit songwriter/rocker. But does yet another version of Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train” — phlegmily retired via Rod Stewart’s burning before your eyes version — fill the void in what makes Bob Seger special in today’s world?
Opening with a snaking electric guitar line, the bass dutifully plunks on the downbeat, drum rims neatly hit for punctiation. Halfway through the first verse, the piano rises and falls, in a very polite, very clean reading on the song that for Tom Waits — rock’s bebop hobo poet at that time of the writing — was the desperation of love, caught in glimpses of a real life barely inhabited. A bit lumbering, there is no ardor to the track, and that only heightens the seeming strain of Bob Seger’s vocals in a way that detaches what should be the last stand of a man who’se given much and received little’s unbirdled passion.
Always a full-on singer who knows no shame, to need, to realm that would surrender his dignity, Bob Seger has given the blue collar romantic, striving to find his place in the world a sense of potency that’s more important than flash, riches or access. For someone who’s built a career on the stoic wistfulness of real men, Seger should be a hero for everyone downsized, still capable of feeling and willing to put it out there — even to a girl on a her train to nowhere special,
That she’s seen is what should draw her to him: a man recognizing her beauty, or allure in a world of rush and gone. Somehow, though, Seger’s vocals seem mannered, almost fought for — and that makes what is an overdone choice fail twice. Three times if one considers what a writer of such a deep human bent might have done with the notion if he’d challenged himself to write the song.
Still, as a witness to what America was, is and might be, Bob Seger is making his music in the middle of the nation. he has proven time and again that he understands the arc of fame in a way that only the no frills Midwest might consider: devoid of pretense, bemused by the glamour and utterly lost on the lack of depth. Sadly, he falls short here — and one can only hope that the forthcoming album will be bolstered by his own songs of a world that his — and our’s.