For some rock 'n' rollers, the basics are enough. Using only a time-honored three-chord vamp, a few well-known guitar licks and some vocal phrases cribbed from vintage rhythm-and-blues, Bob Seger or Bruce Springsteen can build a song that sounds thoroughly modern. It hardly matters than their materials have been around since the birth of the blues, or that their best dramatic ploys are old bar-band staples. Far more important is the singer's unique point of view.
Bob Seger's music hasn't changed much in the 17 years he's been playing in public. It's still the same rock/R&B blend he learned from early-'60s Detroit radio: the guitar-propelled backbeat of Chuck Berry matched with the soulful grit of Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. Seger must have played every bar in the Ann Arbor/Detroit area, slowly earning himself a wide local following while only fitfully gaining national attention with songs like "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" or "Heavy Music." There was never any question about Seger's performing ability - his rough-hewn voice puts most white rock singers to shame - but until his 1975 album, "Beautiful Loser," he was just a typical shouter about women, music and - for his Detroit audience - hard work.
On "Beautiful Loser," Seger began to reveal himself as something more than a local boy begging "Rosalie" (Trombley, the music director of the Midwest's dominant rock station, CKLW) to add his song to the playist.Seger had outgrown his adolescence, and adult perceptions entered his songs. Alongside lust and the love of rock 'n' roll, Seger now had self-doubts: What was a family man doing playing rock for a living? And as he became more truthful, he became a believable character, a working man making good the hard way.
"Live Bullet" brought Seger out of obscurity in 1976. It showed both sides of his personality - the sweat-soaked frontman who'd strut and grunt "Bo Diddley" all night long, as well as the self-conscious singer of "Turn the Page." The new material on the "Night Moves" album fitted Seger even better: the diehard "Rock & Roll Never Forgets," the memories in "Night Moves" and "Main Street," lust eternal in "The Fire Down Below." It didn't hurt that the Silver Bullet Band (and guests from the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section) played the simple songs more tightly than earlier Seger bands; but it was Seger's evocative treatment that put him across.
With his latest release, "Stranger in Town" (Capitol SW-11698), Seger takes notice of his vast new audience for the first time - and apparently it scares him. Each of his new songs, (recorded with the knowledge that "Night Moves" had gone platinum, and hoping the new LP would do the same) is about loneliness, isolation, terror. The parable of "Hollywood Nights" sets the tone: "He was a midwestern boy on his own . . . too far from home." When Seger writes about working, in "Feel Like a Number," he writes about depersonalization; his only expression of lust is "Here we are, both of us lonely . . . Why don't you stay?" The love affairs he sings about are ending or never really began. "Still the same" is the single, and its wistful tune masks bitterness: "No one's gotten to you yet . . . I had nothing left to say." Even when Seger goes to get some kicks from "Old Time Rock & Roll" records, he knows he has to "listen to 'em by myself."
Seger's music is still pieced together from standard vamps - a hymm for "We've Got Tonite," barrelhouse but his simple emotion makes them crackle with new-found tension. In the midst of long-awaited success, Seger admits to his own vulnerability - and thus remains true to himself and his audience.
Bruce Springsteen's success, on the other hand, has bent him completely out of shape. After three years of legal skirmishes and rumors of endless, perfectionistic overdubbing, Springsteen's new album, "Darkness on the Edge of Town" (Columbia JC 35318) is so far off-beat that it's frightening. Ponderous, self-important, repetitive - and, sadly, sincere - the album suggests that Springsteen has started to believe in his own legend.
When "Born to Run" was released in 1975, genuine interest and a concerted PR effort had brought Springsteen to nationwide prominence as, at least, a rock 'n' roll demigod. "Born to Run" earned its praise, though, because its lyric-crammed songs were leavened with powerful rock and a touch of swaggering humor as well. But "Darkness on the Edge of Town" is deadly serious, and often deadly dull.
Someone must have convinced Springsteen that every song he writes has to be an American epic. Required elements include Night, the Street, Dreams, Impending Doom and a touch of Fatal Romance. He has used these elements before - they're all in the single "Born to Run" - but here he belabors them mercilessly, humorlessly. (With each of his four albums, Springsteen has narrowed his scope; perhaps his fifth will consist of one chanted word.)
A worse problem, however, is the music. Like his West Coast counterpart Jackson Browne, Springsteen's melodic gift is small; he depends instead on vocal power, interesting lyrics and the momentum of rock 'n' roll. On "Darkness" he forgoes that momentum; too many of the songs are paced at a medium plod, the measured tread of Significance. Or perhaps he intended to mirror the album's gloomy lyrics with dispirited music that would reinforce a sense of hopelessness.
To enliven his simple chord progressions, Springsteen (or his co-producer Jon Landau) has copped some incongruous riffs: Andrea True's "More, More, More" has echoes in "Something in the Night," and "Factory" resembles "Jesus Christ Superstar's" "I Don't Know How to Love Him." Some arrangements are curiously derivative, too: "Candy's Room," the most exciting song on the LP, has a spoken intro a la Patti Smith, while the title cut could be a Jackson Browne backup track.Springsteen plagiarizes himself, too: "Badlands" recaps "Thunder Road"; "Streets of Fire" and "Prove It All Night," adjacent cuts on the new album, both use the same two-chord vamp, in the same key.
Saddled with pretentious songs and deadening arrangements, Sringsteen tries to rescue himself with the most intense performances he's ever put on record. He sings in voices he's never unleashed; howls, bellows, wrenching cries direct from the gut. And his guitar leads are raw and triumphantly out of tune. As long as Springsteen holds on to that basic brute force, there's hope for his next album.