Jim Croce is an essential artist, but The Definitive Croce is not an essential record.
Jim Croce came from a working class background steeped in the folk tradition of working class heroes. In the 2003 DVD Have You Heard? Croce looks right at the camera and says, "I think that truck drivers are really a good bunch of people, you know... all the guys I hang around with at home are truck drivers," before launching into "Speedball Tucker". The characters that inhabit Croce's songs, like Speedball, are often foolish or rough around the edges, but they're sincere and have real convictions. They're shaded in magnificently, whether it's the wannabe executive making minimum wage in "Workin' at the Carwash Blues" or the emotionally wrecked narrator of "Operator (That's Not the Way it Feels)" on a journey of discovery with a long distance operator. Or take "Rapid Roy (The Stock Car Boy)", which shreds the sepia-toned James Dean imagery of modern pop songwriting (which somehow always boils down to the blue jeans/white shirt binary), and presents a fleshed out figure of a grinning rebel: "You know he always got an extra pack of cigarettes rolled up in his T-shirt sleeve / he got a tattoo on his arm that says 'baby' / he got another one that just say 'hey' / but every Sunday afternoon he is a dirt track demon in a '57 Chevrolet."
Croce had an incredible talent for characterization that felt complex yet effortless, one probably bred of his breadth of experience. He was a true renaissance man, who could drive a gravel truck or weld as easily as he could pick up a guitar or write a piece of fiction. Dead of a plane crash at the age of 30, the world lost a phenomenal songwriter, and the latest compilation of his work, The Definitive Croce, attempts to shed light on this. Unfortunately, it sheds no more light than many previous compilations have done.
Recently, Croce's music has been featured in some high profile places, from X-Men: Days of Future Past to Django Unchained, so the argument could be made that the time was right for a new collection to capitalize on that attention. But to think that twenty-somethings who liked the vibe of "I Got a Name" from Django Unchained are going out to buy physical 34-song retrospectives is to severely misunderstand modern consumption habits. And, if anyone did want to dive headfirst into Croce's work, there are already a glut of compilations to choose from, including another "definitive" collection from 1998 that includes every song on the collection at hand, plus five more.
For my money, Photographs & Memories: His Greatest Hits might have struck the perfect balance way back in 1974: 14 superlative examples of his tender vibrato and breadth of songwriting talent, one that you could breeze through on a long commute. The Definitive Croce, on the other hand, spans 34 songs and feels front-loaded: of Croce's six top-20 singles, five of them represent the first five tracks of the album (the exception being "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," which opens disc two). The songs themselves are a joy to listen to, as they always are, but that same joy can be gleaned from listening to Croce's studio albums, or any one of several preexisting compilations, leaving The Definitive Croce an answer in search of a problem.