Sunday, July 5, 2015

Bob Seger - Against the Wind (1980)

(This is the first of a series of record reviews called "Shades of Mediocrity," a look at weak [but not necessarily bad] albums from esteemed artists.)
The stranger in town suddenly got stranger.  By 1980, Bob Seger was a bona fide rock star who was content and relaxed enough to forge ahead with his career after having finally broken through to a national audience with Night Moves and Stranger In Town.  Against the Wind, his third studio album since Live Bullet (the 1976 concert album that paved the way for his late-seventies success) and his eleventh studio album overall, found him just a little too content and too relaxed.
Against the Wind was Seger's attempt at going for a more mainstream rock sound, which in 1980 meant a formulaic blend of light, acoustically centered numbers for AM hit radio and heavy rockers for FM album-oriented rock radio (a convention that no longer exists).  And it was just that formula that made most rock at the beginning of the eighties as right as rain and as dull as dishwater.  On Against the Wind, Seger delivers country-rock tunes flawlessly and gets all the notes right with the heavier stuff, but most of it sounds calculated and soulless.  Indeed, Against the Wind is an ironic title for an album from an artist who had to fight his way into the mainstream and here succumbs to it.
Against the Wind was made after Seger relocated from Michigan to California, and he got help from his old buddy Glenn Frey of the Eagles and from Eagles producer Bill Szymczyk.  So many long-time Seger fans were quick to blame the influence of what they perceived to be the Hollywood phoniness of the West Coast rock establishment for this record's mediocre feel.  But the truth is that (despite some fine, precise arrangements and production values) the blame for this LP's weak vibe ultimately rests with Seger himself.  He was still working with the Silver Bullet Band and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, and it must also be noted that Glenn Frey and Frey's fellow Eagle Don Felder contributed memorable guitar work on Stranger In Town.  The intensity and depth of Seger's music that was evident in his earlier songs is mostly missing here.
Against the Wind starts out with the clumsy rocker "The Horizontal Bop," an oafish double-entendre song about sex and dancing that's too stodgy for either activity.  The rest of the album goes back and forth between the lighter and heavier stuff, with a few moments of brilliance that Seger undercuts with a lack of focus or purpose.  "Her Strut," a crunchy rock tune redeemed by Silver Bullet Band guitarist Drew Abbott's blistering riffs, attempts to show admiration for assertive women while being honest about noticing their sex appeal (Seger said the song was inspired by Jane Fonda), but Seger phrases the song as if he's more interested in her walk than her talk (and it uncomfortably reminds the listener of Kiss's blatantly sexist "Strutter").  And there's no way Seger can explain away "Betty Lou's Gettin' Out Tonight," a forced rocker about a bunch of guys waiting to jump the town flirt, which even Alto Reed's effervescent, spirited saxophone solo can't save.  
The lighter numbers here have acoustic guitars full of treble and some deeply melodic piano passages typical of LA rock ballads, but they don't have the same sense of tension.  Songs like "You'll Accomp'ny Me" and "Fire Lake" are supposed to be about taking risks, but the former song arrogantly suggests that winning a woman's love is actually a foregone conclusion rather than a gamble, and the latter tune (with Frey and fellow Eagles Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmit singing backing vocals that sound phoned in) is more concerned with sex than romance as a payoff, the objects of desire being suntanned ladies who "flirt so well" and "lay you down so fast."  And the best thing Seger can say about women in either song is that their long hair flies when they run.  Profound, no?
Against the Wind does, though, have two outstanding cuts - the title song, about loss and regret and the need to carry on, with some lovely piano from former Manassas keyboardist Paul Harris (it's undoubtedly one of Seger's best songs, its fade-out patterned after that of "Night Moves"), and the album's closing number "Shinin' Brightly," in which Seger looks with optimism to the future after having finally made it.  Both numbers illustrate how much Seger had had to struggle and how he appreciated the rewards of his efforts.  But the rest of Against the Wind found Seger taking his abilities for granted, ready to churn out any old stuff with the knowledge that folks would buy anything with his name on it.  It's a conceit that too many rock stars assume.  As he entered the eighties, Seger only left longtime fans pondering loss and regret . . . the loss of Seger's unique talent and the regret of buying this album.

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