Bob Seger’s ‘The Fire Inside’ has bright moments but doesn’t match early material
Detroit working-class hero composes 1991 album with help from buddies
Bob Seger truly could be the father of working-class rock ‘n’ roll. But despite churning out hits like “Katmandu,” “Still the Same” and a certain tune called “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll” which would put Tom Cruise on the map thanks to his famous dance scene in the film “Risky Business,” the Michigan native never gets his just due.
Seger has a legion of diehard fans, but it was a hard-earned success. He didn’t receive exposure from benefit concerts because they largely didn’t exist during his heyday in the ‘70s, and he didn’t benefit from the MTV era in the same way that John Mellencamp, another heartland hero, did. Also, he didn’t have the New York media in his corner like Bruce Springsteen, who also furthered his career thanks to the popularity of music videos.
Seger was known for taking long breaks from the music business. One such hiatus lasted for five years after the release of 1986’s “Like a Rock.” The LP had made him a full-blown, sellout star, as the title track was used to peddle pickup trucks in television commercials. Hair bands became massively popular in his absence, and the grunge movement was soon to reach its pinnacle; both trends had made many old-school rockers obsolete. But just when you thought Seger had faded away for good, he returned to the limelight in 1991 with “The Fire Inside.”
That album is credited to Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, his longtime, Detroit-based backup musicians, but this is a tad misleading. Sure, Chris Campbell, Alto Reed and Craig Frost all appear on the LP, but it’s the guest musicians who steal the show. Drummer Kenny Aronoff and violinist Lisa Germano, who both played with Mellencamp in the ‘80s and ‘90s, make an appearance. Other notable session players include Don Was, Joe Walsh, Patty Smyth and Bruce Hornsby.
Other players on the record are intertwined with rock royalty, as well. Roy Bittan was keyboardist for Springsteen’s E Street Band; Rick Vito played guitar for Fleetwood Mac in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s; Mike Campbell was a founding member of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers and Mudcrutch; James Newton-Howard played keyboards and arranged strings for Elton John; and Waddy Watchell played guitar for the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Warren Zevon and Keith Richards.
In addition, five different producers directed the making of the album, including Punch Andrews, a longtime colleague of Seger’s during the period when the singer was bringing fans chart-topping hits. With a talented, loaded lineup like that, what could go wrong?
The answer: not much.
The album opens with “Take a Chance,” a song that describes just what many thought Seger did in this comeback attempt. (Really, though, how big was the gamble with this group of accomplished players?) The song is charming, as are many of the early tunes such as “The Real Love,” “Sightseeing,” “Real at the Time,” “Always in My Heart” and the title track.
That cut ends the first side of the cassette (which I bought upon its release 27 years ago). Bittan’s piano takes center stage here, and all of the songs on the first half of the work feature Seger at his best. He still has his songwriting skills and his voice. All the elements of a classic Seger album are here; he rocks and he croons as he explores love and hope.
Seger always has been a top songwriter in his own right, but he adds a pair of Tom Waits songs here, too: “New Coat of Paint” and “Blind Love,” the renditions of which are flawless. He adds another outside song, “She Can’t Do Anything Wrong,” to close things out. The album also includes “The Long Way Home,” a ballad in the tradition of “Famous Final Scene” from “Stranger in Town.”
The LP’s two weakest cuts are “Which Way” and “The Mountain.” Musically, both rock, but their respective lyrics are weak. On “The Mountain,” Seger engages in a guitar duel with Walsh; of course, the Eagles ax-man wins the battle – like he did in most cases.
This work is a must-have for Seger fans, and although it fails to pack the knockout punch of his earlier stuff, it does prove that one of the singer’s hits is true. Rock ‘n’ roll never forgets. Seger shines on an album that could’ve been an absolute mess.