[9 February 2012]
A funny thing happens when you listen to both discs of Bob Seger’s new greatest hits anthology: There doesn’t seem to be any difference between songs recorded decades apart. Indeed, the whole thing plays like a double album recorded all at once, apart from some minor differences in production. That’s an indication of just how consistent Seger’s music has been through the years: he’s never really altered his style or technique all that much. You can argue about the synth-drums in “Shakedown” or the Eagles harmonies in “Fire Lake”, but it would be hard to state that he ever really jumped on trends or compromised his standards, which is not something that could be said, for instance, about John Mellencamp.
On the other hand, the less charitable assessment is that Seger hasn’t really evolved or grown very much either. True, he’s never been as frustrating as Neil Young, whose genre-jumping can sometimes seem like little more than sheer pig-headedness, but it seems like Seger’s writing and arranging could have used a bit more variety. Even Bruce Springsteen, with whom he was often compared back in the ‘70s, has made music that he couldn’t have made back then. Seger, by contrast, is still pretty much doing the same thing he was for most of his career. That’s not necessarily an indictment, but it does show one reason why Seger never became the megastar that Springsteen or Young became. He does one thing and does it well, but once you become accustomed to what he does, you realize that his repertoire—rootsy rockers, piano-centered ballads, country-folk tunes—doesn’t really change, nor does his lyrical approach. His limitations made him successful for a time, but outside of that, he hasn’t changed much.
That’s why it’s almost bewildering to read Dave Marsh’s infamous evisceration of 1980’s Against the Wind in which he attacked the album as a “betrayal” of all of Seger’s previous music. Comparing the four songs here from Wind to the four songs from Seger’s previous album, 1978’s Stranger in Town or, for that matter, to the two songs from his next album, 1982’s The Distance, it’s hard to hear much difference. The lyrical content is supposedly more selfish and sexist (Marsh’s assessment) and the production is indeed a bit slicker. Really, though, is there that much difference between “Still the Same” and “You’ll Accomp’ny Me”? Is “Her Strut” any more lyrically crass than “Old Time Rock N’ Roll”? Since the songs here are not sequenced chronologically, you won’t actually get to hear Seger’s music as he made it through the years. Yet that’s not such a violation as you might expect. Seger’s music changes so little, apart from minor production details, that you won’t really notice much difference.
This set compiles most of Seger’s biggest hits on two discs. It isn’t quite a repackaging of his two previous hits collections. It has most of the songs from those, but it omits some of their previously unreleased recordings and some other selections. Most of the major songs are here and there are no glaring omissions. The liner notes are less helpful, not identifying where the songs came from or when they were released, although there are lyrics for all of them. In that regard, it’s a decent compilation.
Of course, there will be quibbles. Once again, a Seger anthology omits some rather famous FM radio hits, such as “Feel Like A Number”. The only early song included is “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man”, which does sound different from his other music; it bears more of a resemblance to other protean Detroit bands like Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes than it does to Seger’s more polished later work. It’s an interesting inclusion but not an entirely successful one. Nonetheless, the album does deserve credit for attempting to give a more comprehensive portrait of Seger’s career, even if it comes at the expense of songs that probably would have fit better, both musically and thematically.
Also included are two previously unreleased songs, both covers. The version of Little Richard’s “Hey Hey Hey Hey” is mildly amusing but inessential. Much more interesting is Seger’s rendition of Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train”, recorded in 1989 but shelved after Rod Stewart had a big hit with the same song that year. The arrangement Seger uses here is very similar to the one Stewart used for his version, which supposedly is the reason why Seger’s version was shelved. It’s a lovely version, although after Stewart’s it’s not nearly as revelatory.
In any event, this is probably the best Seger anthology available. It may be a bit much if you only want one or two hits, but if you’re looking for an overall look at Seger’s career—for better and for worse—you can’t get a more representative collection than this one. The new songs will appeal to the longtime fans, but they’re not really the main selling point. What Ultimate Hits does do is showcase the high points of Seger’s long career, even as it unintentionally demonstrates just why he was never really a truly major artist. That may seem an unfair or harsh judgment, but after listening to Ultimate Hits, it’s the only one that makes sense.