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Funny how the night moves

Bob Seger, at the speed of a silver mullet

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"Everything I do is just a little wrong,

Everyday for me is the same,

Everyone I know is getting' in my face,

And I only got myself to blame."

That's Bob Seger, just before declaring (with a little swagger) that he's about to "Wreck This Heart," the first track on Face The Promise, his first album of all-new material since 1995's It's A Mystery. As on that album, Seger's pissed. But this new set is not divided into confrontational social commentary versus near-greeting-card verses about the joys of family life. No, Face The Promise is a richer mix, emotionally and sonically. At 61, Seger knows there's enough blame to go around, and for what. But he also knows how far knowing that will get you, so "Wreck This Heart," for instance, is less about self-recrimination than it is a pretext to cut loose, via guitars, bass and drums. Yet there's no macho nostalgia either. That's right: Bob Seger, of all people, is not doing nostalgia anymore.

Well, not much. But it's basically a familiar approach, and he can't help invoking comparisons, mostly favorable. Although, Face The Promise does have a few tamer examples of his patented medium-speed numbers, not quite ballads: "Seger mediums," he calls them. As he once admitted, "They were a challenge to write, now they've become formulaic."

But Seger's always been ready to teach us, on his recordings and in his overall career, about the trickiness of adapting, the need to remain unsettled. His earliest known songs bear this out, as collected on The Singles 1966-1967, a deleted, but still findable, Capitol Records release. Seger's first single, "East Side Story," is about the inevitable rise and fall of a novice thief, who brags about his ability to deal with soft, rich folks. The song stomps along in the face of doom, punk enough. Attitude is less predictably employed in his second single, "Ballad Of The Yellow Berets." In effect, its gleeful delivery is as much a takeoff on Sgt. Barry Sadler's solemnly monotonous original, "Ballad Of The Green Berets," as it is on the "yellow" mid-60s Vietnam War protestors. But then the third single, "Persecution Smith," shows up, and Seger's music seems to take a great leap forward, forcibly enough.

"Persecution Smith" speeds along, like Bob Dylan's contemporaneous "Subterranean Homesick Blues." The antique folk-rock style is still startling: the song, like its protagonist, jangles along, in a stiff, rusty, but tireless way. Smith is a compulsively radical reactionary, the embodiment of entropy, but human enough to torture himself and everybody else he can reach. The crudeness of the song makes young Seger's vision more unsettling, more believable: "Persecution Smith" is just plain old, and getting older all the time. "He's here, he's there, he's everywhere" seems more true than corny, in this case, because Smith infiltrates everything, like dust.

This kind of dust forms the covering question mark in the title of the fourth single, "2 + 2=?" In "East Side Story," the fallen bad boy's girlfriend cried, because he died like she knew he would. In this song, the girl cries because her boy dies in a war, that "she just doesn't understand." No political commentary is included, she's just left alone in the kind of dust that covers any answers or assumptions once taken for granted.

In 1971, Seger released an album, Mongrel, about the adventures of a long-haired misfit, determined to strut his stuff in the grey face of conformity. "You can call me Lucifer, if you think you should, but I know I'm good!" Yet such cockiness has to deal with killjoys, the ones who are "Leanin' On My Dream," in which the narrator finally joins the protestors, when he gets his own draft notice. "Lord, you shoulda heard me scream!" He doesn't claim to be any better than the "Yellow Berets," and he's no less stubborn than the vicious reactionaries in "Looking Back": "Too many people lookin' back!"

Although "Looking Back" was recorded along with the tracks that appeared on Mongrel, it first appeared as a stray single. Its LP debut was on Seger's 1976 concert album, Live Bullet, the commercial breakthrough of which really was a case of too many people looking back. That's where he became a merchant of rock nostalgia, and something of an addict, though his masterpiece, Night Moves, appeared the same year. It addressed the craving for nostalgia, tracing the dusty, creeping awareness of age. From getting a kick out of remembering "workin' on our night moves," to waking up and thinking, "Ain't it funny how the night moves," which needs no question mark, because it's a feeling the singer already knows too well.

As you probably know too well, he (and possibly you, and certainly I) indulged his mix of autumnal (yet sufficiently rocking) insight and mere mush for many a year, many a multi-platinum record. It's A Mystery only went gold, but Seger kept trying to make another album of (even sharper) social commentary, because he became a father at forty-seven. While that was his self-stated reason for "retiring," to take care of his kids, he's got a lot to sort out and sing about, to his family, to himself, to whoever listens. He's got a new song about war: "No More" is the title, and the point. He sounds, not necessarily older than on most of Face The Promise, but weary. He's tired of having to sing about war; he remembers previous occasions all too well. And that's a good cure for nostalgia: a good strong memory.

Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band Play Charlotte Bobcats Arena, with Steve Azar; Jan 16; 7:30; $65; www.charlottebobcatsarena.com.


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