AMERICA IS experience an internal migration of the jobless that may soon rival the westward migration of Dust Bowl refugees in the '30s or the northward migration of black tenant farmers in the '40s. Fleeing unemployment lines, the factory workers of the industrial Midwest are packing station wagons and heading for Texas and California in search of jobs. If it was fitting that Woody Guthrie should describe the migration of his fellow Okies with austere folk music on "Dust Bowl Ballads," it is just as appropriate that Bob Seger should describe the migration of his fellow Detroiters with pounding rock 'n' roll on "The Distance" (Capitol ST-12254).
The story begins with "Makin' Thunderbirds," which recreates the flush days of 1955 when the assembly lines kept moving, the cars were fast and workers were proud and hopeful. The song captures both the noise of the factory and the optimism of the era as well as the pounding momentum of its rock 'n' roll. Seger's Silver Bullet Band rivets the rhythm in place and welds on frenzied solos by pianist Craig Frost and saxophonist Alto Reed. Backed by Bonnie Raitt, Seger shouts out the song's clincher: "Now the years have flown, and the plants have changed/And you're lucky if you work . . ./Back in '55/We were makin' Thunderbirds."
The next chapter is "House Behind a House," another galloping rocker but with yearning, stretching vocals. Seger describes how "the walls keep closin' in" on the optimism of 1955, and how working people stubbornly cling to a "dream behind a dream . . . a hope behind a hope." Finally the decision is made to leave the familiar, frustrating home town behind and take one's chances on the road south and west. Seger condenses this modern "Grapes of Wrath" to one man and woman on a motorcycle crossing the northern plains in "Roll Me Away," a mid-tempo anthem that builds gradually into the exhilarating feeling of hopes renewed.
Even those Frostbelt refugees who land good jobs, however, find they pay a price. Even a good paycheck can't buy the friends, family, clubs and bands that make a home. With a dirty guitar razzing from ex-Eagle Don Felder, Seger shakes his head over an old friend--well-off but homesick now in the Sunbelt--who's got those "Boomtown Blues." Then there's the friend who headed south and found a chamber pot at the end of the rainbow. Singing a slow country lament over Barry Beckett's piano and Pete Carr's acoustic guitar, Seger describes the embarrassment of "Comin' Home" after all those big dreams fell short in the Sunbelt.
In the end, Seger concludes, it all comes down to survival. As his band picks up a march beat and crashes forward, Seger summons up all the tar and grit in his fabulous rhythm & blues voice to claim: "It might not sound like much/But . . . every hour you survive will come to be/A little victory." "Little Victories" marks a sharply reduced but more realistic form of optimism than "Makin' Thunderbirds." As such, it marks the resilience and vitality of Seger's old friends--the ones who didn't become musicians and instead went to work at a factory.
The album as a whole reflects the resilience and vitality of Seger himself. Tom Petty's producer Jimmy Iovine has given Seger a clearer, crisper sound than ever before. Seger's bear growl singing has never sounded so musically effective or emotionally direct. "The Distance" brings together the reflective ballads and mid-tempo narrative of his later albums with the no-holds-barred rock 'n' roll of his pre-fame days. Maybe now Seger will finally be recognized as Bruce Springsteen's peer as a great populist voice.
In addition to the splendid six-song cycle about the Frostbelt crisis, "The Distance" contains three fine love songs. Rodney Crowell's "Shame on the Moon," the album's only cover tune, is already a hit single and Seger's first-ever foray into the country charts. Also well-recorded by Karen Brooks and Crystal Gayle, the song deftly describes the side of people you can only discover in bed. Seger's "Even Now" is another of his affirmative songs about growing old. With pianist Roy Bittan adding the Springsteen-anthem touches, the song expresses Seger's incredulous, grateful wonder that "She's all that I need/Even now" when most longterm love affairs have burned out.
Like Seger, Phil Lynott has a hard-rock background and aspirations to be a spokesman for his young, working-class audience. As the driving force behind the Irish hard-rock quartet Thin Lizzy, Lynott has often been entertaining but only occasionally evocative. Lynott lacks Seger's self-discipline and settles too often for heavy-handed irony or meandering monologues. The same mixture of promising talent and inconsistent results makes Lynott's second solo album, "The Philip Lynott Album" (Warner Bros. 23745-1), a tantalizing but frustrating affair.
Part of the problem is that Lynott made the album over a period of 18 months with different musicians and different styles. Several sound like standard Thin Lizzy tracks, including the catchy, rocking heartbreak tale "Together." A medley of songs for his daughter might have worked if they hadn't dragged on so endlessly. He has written a good imitation of a Dire Straits song, "Ode to Liberty," and even got Mark Knopfler to add his trademark guitar lines, but Lynott ruins it with silly lyrics. He hams up two songs by overdubbing a TV talk show and a street-corner preacher. Much better is "Old Town," a tale of young lovers in an ancient neighborhood, which sparkles with Fiachra Trench's sharp string and horn charts. Best of all is "Yellow Pearl," which Lynott wrote with Ultravox's synthesizer whiz Midge Ure. This rousing synth-funk anthem urges an attack on unjustly concentrated money and power.