How do you make sense of a track record like that? The only common denominator is a distinct lack of commercial success outside of Seger’s home base in Detroit—even “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” was not a national smash—and the fact that Seger never gave up. Plenty of rock and rollers keep pushing for a decade and more after even a single national hit, but not many last 12 years, recording misses and playing the bottom of the bill, looking for the first one.Now, though, Seger has made a first-rate album, Night Moves (after seeing the Arthur Penn movie, Seger must have realized that’s a great title for anything), and it holds together as his career does not: there is a distinct sensibility here, songs no one else could have written, vocals no one else would have sung, themes no one else is dealing with; on the title tune, the arrangement is so precise and unforced few could have conceived it. There is raunch and there is subtlety; Seger knows when to bear down and when to hold back, when to shout and when to murmur. His music has taken shape, and the reason may be that last year Seger finally got that hit—when he wasn’t looking for it, with Live Bullet, intended merely as a time-filler between “real” LPs. It sold, received national FM airplay, made it possible for Seger to headline in some areas, and it’s likely that the strength of Night Moves is a direct result of the confidence and renewed ambition—commercial and artistic—that sometimes only a hit can bring.
Night Moves is about getting older and keeping faith with both the present and the past. At its most acute, it’s about memory: not maudlin nostalgia but delight in the buried secrets of one’s own mind. Seger isn’t longing for the past but finding pleasure in the fact that he can carry it with him into the present; that because of his age, distance has made his memories matter in a way they didn’t when he was younger. “Sometimes even now/ When I’m feeling lonely and beat/I drift back in time/And I find my feet.” There are no false notes on Night Moyes (though the first side, cut with Seger’s Silver Bullet Band, has more musical personality than side two, recorded with the automatic Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section) and every cliché is redeemed by individuality—most songwriters would have settled for “lonely and blue.”
Night Moves opens with “Rock and Roll Never Forgets,” a solid rocker about passing 30 and losing your nerve, but the message is that since the music hasn’t worn out, why should you? (Still, Seger sings “forgets” so that it sounds like “forgives,” suggesting that rock and roll apostasy is a serious risk of aging.) Having affirmed his age, though, Seger fades back 15 years or so, into a reverie about teenage sex: in the back seat, in the woods, in the alleys. This is “Night Moves,” as beautiful a tune as I’ve heard this year; a quiet, lyrical meditation on the possibilities of the song’s title and on the process of recall itself. Here, “Night Moves” means technique—“workin’ on our night moves”—but it also means something more ambiguous, as Seger reveals in the finest lines he’s written, delivered with the softest touch he’s ever achieved, or maybe reached for: “I woke last night to the sound of thunder/How far off, I sat and wondered/Started humming a song from 1962/ Ain’t it funny how the night moves/When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose/Strange how the night moves…” Bruce Springsteen couldn’t have written this song, because he’s not old enough (chronologically and otherwise); Dylan couldn’t have, because he’s never copped to having been a teenager.The themes of past and present are maintained throughout Night Moves—even if half of the songs are “about” no such thing—with “Main Street,” with the way the second side opens with “Sunspot Baby,” Seger’s updated version of Ronnie Hawkins’s “Mary Lou,” and closes with the original, which is set in 1959, with the couplet that opens the album itself; they are maintained by the sense of completeness the album offers, the sense of a man pulling off a coup, saying what he’s been trying to say for so long, making the music he has never quite caught before. It’s that completeness, and the fact that Night Moves doesn’t have a bad track on it, that allows its best tunes to define the album in a listener’s mind. “Yeah,” keep saying to myself every time I hear Night Moves, “that’s right. Uh huh.” And I play it again, turn it over, play it again.
Village Voice, 1976 (specific date TBD)