It’s been 38 years since Bob Seger recorded his tribute to that “Old Time Rock and Roll,” and he’s remained a torchbearer for it ever since. Perhaps his approach has shifted just a bit—as he’s aged, he’s increasingly favored supple ballads, and he’s injected more country twang into his heartland rock—but the music he’s making in 2017 is marked by the same sturdy craft and innate conservatism that have always been his calling cards.
In that sense, I Knew You When is what one might expect: chugging, straightforward rock—executed with passion and skill—that frequently nods to the past. As evidenced by its very title, the album is one of remembrance, and in particular it’s a salute to fallen friend Glenn Frey of the Eagles. The deluxe edition features “Glenn Song,” a slow and haunted lament, while the title track tells toasts Frey’s “dangerous charisma” and humanizes the man behind all those multi-platinum hits over a steady midtempo beat and ringing piano.
That’s not to say that the album is completely stuck in the past. Seger acknowledges our world’s present-day tensions, though it’s telling that his two politically minded songs are both cover songs from a bygone era. His take on Lou Reed’s “Busload of Faith,” a song originally released in the dawning days of the George H.W. Bush presidency, includes some revised lyrics for the Trump era (“You can’t depend on the president/Unless there’s real estate you want to buy”), but its swaggering performance—complete with grinding electric guitars and a complement of harmony singers—feels like a throwback. His cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy,” meanwhile, trades smirking irony for heartfelt sadness: It feels like a genuine lament for a country that Seger loves but which is vanishing before his very eyes.
Seger’s faith in democracy may wane, but when it comes to rock n’ roll, he remains a true believer. Occasionally, his stubbornness leads him to sound like a hapless crank, as on “The Sea Inside,” which awkwardly tries to emulate the orchestral pomp of Led Zeppelin. And on “Something More,” he offers a power ballad with cavernous drums and squealing guitars that make it feel like the sad talisman of a man who can’t quite let go of his glory days.
When Seger sticks to growling out his lyrics over jagged riffs and a relentless beat, as he does on the driving “Runaway Train” and the synth-driven “The Highway,” he proves that craft can be rewarding in its own right, and that he still excels at creating emotional investment in something as tried and true as barreling, locomotive rock. Those songs, combined with the ones for Frey, provide a clear window into Seger’s worldview: In a world that feels badly broken, it’s good to celebrate those things that have never required any fixing.