The Seger File

An unofficial web site about the music of Bob Seger
Last updated May 1998
Edited by Scott Sparling
sparling@segerfile.com


It's A Mystery

October 24, 1995

Data

Seger on the slower rate of sales for It's A Mystery: "I think it [the album] might crawl its way to [platinum] in the next six months, but I knew it was going to be hard to get airplay. There's age discrimination on radio today. I knew the only way to sell it would be to go on tour." Brian McCollum, March 8, 1996, Detroit Free Press. "Detroit Never Forgets."

[So why didn't he play more of it live...instead of just two or three songs per concert?]

"With alternative dominating radio, there's really no place for us to get airplay. All radio plays is our old stuff on classic rock radio. So we've got to sell that album by word of mouth. We're crawling to platinum, but it's just not the way it was in the old days, when we had 700 stations playing us and going four and five (songs) deep on every album." J. Freedom Du Lac, April 14, 1996, Sacramento Bee. "'It's a Mystery' no more: Seger's rockin' again."


Background

Seger finished 33 songs and recorded 26 of them for this album. As early as October 1994 -- a year prior to the album's release -- Seger had recorded all or part of the 26 songs considered for the album.

A lot of the unused songs were ballads. Seger: "I just love recording ballads." Reuters, 1996.

At one point, the album was tentatively titled "Lock and Load."

The album was unveiled at a party and press conference at Detroit's Royal Oak Music Theatre to a crowd of about 1,000.

"During a December performance for the media at a Detroit rehearsal studio, the 50-year-old Seger appeared to feel the effects of his hiatus, struggling on "Hollywood Nights" for command of his upper register." Brian McCollum, January 20, 1996, Detroit Free Press. "Seger returns to the stage: Don't put the old rocker on the shelf."

"Mystery" fulfills Seger's contract with Capitol Records. One reporter wrote that Seger "has had a couple of feelers from other labels for his future work -- an attractive bargaining chip for any senior division rock 'n' roller." John Smyntek, July 30, 1995,Detroit Free Press. "New Seger album due out this fall."


Garage Rock

In 1998, Seger looked back on It's A Mystery and referred to it as "my garage rock album." May 19, 1998, Detroit Free Press. "Bob Seger duet for 'Hope Floats' gathered dust for years."


Seger Out On the Edge

Seger: "I didn't want to worry about sheen; I wanted to orry about feel and spontaneity. It's just that magical thing that happens, and you say, 'Stop. That's fine.' I think having the reinsoff, not having the pressure on me to do another Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band down the middle of the road -- that was exactly what I was trying to do with this record.

"The way I see it, if something is going to take me away from my family, it better be something I enjoy doing. So consequently, my own personality has been, I guess, strengthened, empowered by my family. I don't have time to compromise anymore. In that sense, I think I'll be a more daring artist, and I'm happy about that." Gary Graff, Spring 1996, Detroit Free Press.


Seger told Graff that The Greatest Hits album is "an honest representation" of the 'down the middle of the road,' era. He described the process of making an album in that era as follows: "There was some pressure on you to make it somewhat quickly [there was? then how come...aahh, never mind] and to have it be as commercial or whatever as the last one.

"Those pressure are off now. I've done the down-the-middle stuff. Now I want to go out on the edges. I'm more that way than I am mainstream. I always have been, really, but now I'm really expressing it. [This is something like the sixth or seventh time in my research that I've noticed Seger saying the pressure is off and now he can finally do things his way, do what he wants. What's that mean? It's interesting, that he keeps announcing his arrival at that point, again and again. It also sounds pretty human -- hey, I guess that means the Capitol copywriter who did the Noah liner notes was right -- Seger is human!]


"I knew I'd lose some people on this album because it's a very different album for me. I used to write about relationships, and now, with the kids, I'm writing about national problems." Roger Catlin, Spring, 1996, Hartford Courant.

"We went for edge, straight ahead, rip and tear, the way we used to make records when we didn't have the time. In the past, I've had my rock 'n' roll savagery tempered. [By who?] I always thought I couldn't go that far. [Why?] But this album is rougher -- an honest effort at going balls to the wall." Capital "Leaning Tower" Internet Pages


Musicians/Sessions

"I wanted to do a big, tough, heavy, rock record. I wanted it to sound live and spontaneous, instead of going for the gloss. So I used the Silver Bullet Band as much as I could. Although, as usual, we had trouble with the ballads. These guys are real rockers -- they're not what you'd call 'sensitive' players. So I used studio cats for a couple of the ballads." Kevin Ransom, March 7, 1996, The Detroit News. "With a family in tow, Seger turns the page on his ramblin days."

"I wanted to show how we could really play and really sing without doing it a million times. There's a directness. We used to spend an enormous amount of time in the studio trying to get the right sound. But on this there are a lot of 'take ones.' If fans are used to a more refined sound, they might not like it. But it's what I've wanted to do for a long time and where I'm headed." Capital "Leaning Tower" Internet Pages

"I produced it without Punch this time, because all those years when he was co-producing, I'd be sitting around half the time when he took the wheel. I didn't have time for that. I wanted to get home to the kids and Punch, well, he didn't mind staying home himself." Reuters, 1996.

"I approached this as a live album. I wanted it to sound like a band in a room. Even tracks with studio guys like [E Street Band keyboardist] Roy Bittan were first takes. I said, 'Let's just go in and play.' It doesn't have the studio sheen of my other albums." Reuters, 1996.


Guns

There are numerous references to guns on It's A Mystery -- "Lock and Load," "Hands in the Air," "Manhattan," "Sixteen Shells from a 30-06."

Seger: "It wasn't a conscious thing. I did a lot of reading when I had the kids. You hear things like 135,000 kids go to school every day with a handgun in this country, you know what I mean? So I guess this stuff was on my mind because my kids are going to be going to school, and their future in general was on my mind." Roger Catlin, Spring, 1996, Hartford Courant.


The Cover

At one point, participants in the AOL Seger board were weighing in with their thoughts on the album art. Several didn't like the photos of kids. I thought the art made sense. If the album had nothing to do with kids -- if it was another theme album about the distance between people in a relationship -- then it would be silly and out of place to put kids on the cover. But It's A Mystery is rooted in Seger's kids. In every interview he talks about how his world view has changed from seeing through his children's eyes. So, it makes artistic sense to have a child's eye on the cover.

Seger: "I came to having kids so late in life...suddenly all these things that used to bother me really began to bother me a lot more. I don't care about my future anymore: now it's all about my kid's future. That's where this album is coming from." J. Freedom Du Lac, April 14, 1996, Sacramento Bee. "'It's a Mystery' no more: Seger's rockin' again."


Tracks

It's A Mystery

The first song written for the album. An indictment of the sensational and superficial tendencies of the news media, among other things. "It sort of set the tone for the whole thing," Seger said. Gary Graff, October 19, 1995, Reuters


Revisionism Street

"You can take an angle on anything -- let's talk about the dark side of Alfred Hitchcock, let's talk about the dark side of Elvis Presley. Is this worthy of cutting down a tree in the forest and making a million copies?" Kira L. Billik (AP), January 1996, Traverse City Record-Eagle. "He's older now but he's still running against the wind."


Rite of Passage

Seger said the song is "about the pain of war."

Seger: "The idea of a 'feel-good' war, which is what some people called the Persian Gulf War. Power can be corrupting. When you have the ability to level your enemy, you damn well better be sure it's the right thing to do morally. Because our sons and daughters are going to die. It had better be worth it." Capital "Leaning Tower" Internet Pages


Lock and Load

"I just started singing it one day. The way I was perceiving it was: Time to get serious -- a metaphor for that. Time to hunker down and do your best." Roger Catlin, Spring, 1996, Hartford Courant.

"Me hammering myself for my dark side. I spent years trying to appease people on the periphery of my existence -- the bottom-line corporate people. Now I've finally gotten off my duff and realized that what's important is family. That's because now I know what family means." Capital "Leaning Tower" Internet Pages


By the River

"My ecology song -- about trying to keep things permanent. I've had this cabin for 19 years and I'm looking out at a lighthouse that's been here all that time and it's beautiful. Of course, nearby is the oldest nuclear plant in the country and if it blows, I'm the first to go." Capital "Leaning Tower" Internet Pages


Manhattan

I admire Seger when he's taking chances so I salute this. Jesse said he cried when he heard it. Said Randy, another Seger DEW-liner: "If I wanted to hear songs about liquor stores getting knocked off, I'd buy a rap record."


I Wonder

"Sitting in my apartment in Naples, Florida, watching the boats sail by. Five years ago, I took up sailing. My one hobby now is sailing my 45-footer single-handed." Capital "Leaning Tower" Internet Pages


Golden Boy

"I've always wanted to do a song with this folk guitar riff I learned off a Leonard Cohen album. It's very uncommercial but I love it." Capital "Leaning Tower" Internet Pages


I Can't Save You, Angeline

"An odd blues that came straight off the top of my head and into a tape recorder. It's about this cop I knew who had a girlfriend who was a weekend warrior partier. She loved cocaine. She was wild." Capital "Leaning Tower" Internet Pages


16 Shells From a 30-6

"In this song, I suspect Tom Waits is angry about something but hell if I know what. I envision someone not firing on all cylinders talking to himself in a junkyard. It's such anarchy, it appeals to me. I met Waits only once, while driving in L.A. It was a hot day, and I had on a Hawaiian shirt. He was in black and walking down a street, and I yelled, 'Tom! It's Bob Seger.' He's startled, but he jumps in my car and we drive around and talk. Finally I say, 'Where do you want me to drop you off?' He goes, 'Back where you picked me up so I can keep walking." Capital "Leaning Tower" Internet Pages

[Listen to the way he tells a story -- 'I was in a Hawaiian shirt, he was in black'...]


West of the Moon

"I love the West. It's staggeringly beautiful and raw and pristine. I wrote this in 1988 and played it for Springsteen but he thought I was singing it in too low a key. I recorded it a few times since but it never worked. Finally I went back to the original low key and rediscovered its power." Capital "Leaning Tower" Internet Pages


Videos

"We sent the whole album to MTV and said we'd do a video for any song they wanted,'' he says. "They said, 'Nah, we're not going to play any of it.' I knew it would be a tough sell. Even the classic-rock stations would rather play my old stuff. But I can't control it, so I don't worry about it.'' Reuters, 1996


My Take

Look at the cover: you can see someone reflected in the eye of the child. That would be Seger, I guess: changed by the child, and now giving himself the liberty of singing what he wants to sing and playing what he wants to play. This is a hard album for fans who were drawn by the polish of the middle-years; it's a great album for those of us who wanted Seger to unleash himself from record-company and marketplace expectations. There are hits and misses here. There are things that work and don't work. In short, there is more of Seger, the person, and less of Seger, the familiar product. Which is disappointing, of course, to those who loved the Seger product.

For a while, the some folks on AOL Seger board were criticizing Mystery for not having enough straight-ahead rock and roll. My response was this:

"It's hypocritical to complain that albums like Against the Wind were too bland, didn't take enough risks, etc -- and then also criticize It's A Mystery, which took a lot of risks and was anything but bland. Mystery is Seger unleashed from everyone's expectation of what he should play and how he should sound. Not many 50+ artists are taking chances -- and taking chances means sometimes you hit, sometimes you miss. I personally thought there were more hits than misses on Mystery. But even if they were all misses, I would still prefer that over the risk-free Bob Seger mediums that some people seem to be nostalgic for.

 

"Twenty-five years ago I was hearing Seger in bars in Ann Arbor and thereabouts, sometimes with as few as twenty people in the audience. Seger would try out new material, play other people's stuff, have fun, jam, take chances, etc. Did it always work? No. Was it always interesting? Incredibly so.

 

"I knew back then that someday he'd be playing in big arenas. I knew he deserved it. When he did, I could no longer hear him in bars on any given weekend. Now he had to play "hits" for the masses, and I could only hear him in arena once, or maybe twice, in a decade. Instead of new and different songs every night, every show is practically the same. I still love it. It's great to see him at the top.

 

"But sometimes I daydream that maybe the circle will turn again. The masses will leave and it will be back to Seger playing to small crowds in bars for the love the music, not for the fans. It would be okay with me -- I'd be there, listening to him cover Tom Waits, or Albert King, etc. But I honestly don't think that will really happen. So having him venture out into new and unknown territory, the way he did on Mystery, is the next best thing.

 

"You're not convinced, I'm sure. You want music that's easier to listen to. So find yourself an oldies radio station. You won't have to look far."

It's A Mystery is where Seger takes chances again And it makes me think the following: he hasn't given us an album here -- he's given himself an album; an album where he's free from our expectations.


There's something circular about that -- he disregards what we want and does what he wants. Yet I've been wanting him to disregard what we want, so when he does, he's doing in effect, what we want. The whole dynamic reminds me of sex, when it's good: i.e., when your partner ignores your needs but just happens, in the process of meeting her own needs, to meet yours too.

It's A Mystery is not quite as good as sex, of course. On the other hand, it's a useful analogy. Sure, great sex is great -- but sex that is merely okay is also highly valued, as is so-so sex or lousy sex. All of it is worth having. This same dynamic applies to Seger. "Like A Rock" and "2 + 2 = ?" are nothing short of life-changing, but even the lessor songs are worth having, even "Long Twin Silver Line," even "She Can't Do Anything Wrong" -- formula failures, as far as I'm concerned, unlike the much more daring failures on It's A Mystery...and I use the word failure with all the respect due a master who doesn't achieve mastery every single time. This is Seger were talking about here, after all, not God. True, some days, some songs, there's no difference -- which is what makes fans like me so greedy. Forgive us, Bob, as we forgive those who expect too much of us. And lead us not into the cut-out bin, but deliver us to unreleased masters.


Reviews

Reviewers for the Detroit media have difficulty criticizing Seger. On the one hand, they want to support the hometown hero. On the other hand, no one is perfect, and sometimes there are critical things to be said. Here reviewer Brian McCollum tries to have it both ways. He give the album 2 out of 4 stars and writes that It's A Mystery "is an often plastic affair, crammed with drum machines, synthesizers, tepid lyrics and vocal melodrama...[but] the rest of the album is just about wonderful....

Other excerpts from the review:

  • "By the River" is the album's top cut, a sparse and spare stroke that rolls out of the speakers like warm honey....
  • "With its histrionic Petty-esque guitar lick, Euro-metal synthesizer riff, and monotone falsetto chorus, 'It's a Mystery' fits the ear like an oversized Q-Tip. It's one of several like-minded sins, including 'Rite of Passage' and 'Hands in the Air'....
  • "Seger's saving grace may always be his voice..."
  • McCollum closes the review by quoting "Lock and Load": "'Mediocrity's easy, the good things take time / The great need commitment, right down the line.' Think about it, Bob." Brian McCollum, October 24, 1995, Detroit Free Press. "Seger's 'Mystery' hits a few low notes."


The March 1996 issue of Stereo Review says that Seger "turns a jaundiced eye to life" on the album:

"...throughout, Seger veers from rough rock-and-roll to a less interesting (if more polished) production that seems a bit out of date -- Eighties synth-drums and all. The one time he's really out on the edge is in a hard-driving cover of Tom Waits '16 Shells from a 30-6,' where Seger suggest that his old muscle hasn't really gone to flab. But alas, it's only a flashback. March 1996, Stereo Review.


Detroit News reviewer Kevin Ransom called It's A Mystery "probably the most mature and reflective release to date from this former ramblin', gamblin' man....On It's A Mystery, Seger sometimes paints with broad, not-so-subtle strokes, both melodically and lyrically...Seger neither defuses nor inflates Waits' darkly surreal missive from the netherworld. Instead -- with the help of former Fleetwood Mac axeman Rick Vito's gnarly slide guitar -- he nails it, leaving the song's emotional urgency, ominous metaphors and clanking, skeletal rhythms intact. Artistically, that's a good sign -- affirming that you needn't fear the darkness just because you've seen the light." Kevin Ransom, October 21, 1995, The Detroit News. "Seger's seen a new light, but hasn't quit the darkness."

[Huh? Could you run that past me again?]


Reviewer Nicole Arthur, writing in the Washington Post pulls out all the stops. Clearly, it is not fashionable for young hip music reviewers to be caught appreciating anything as unmodern as Seger. As soon as she begins -- by noting that "Seger's late-'70s heyday is long past" and that "many took last year's greatest hits collection for a coup de grace" -- you know Seger's in for a rough time with young, sophisticated Nicole.

Excerpts:

Arthur says the new album is "hardly worth the [four-year] wait." It is "filled with soggy ballads and almost-ballads, and even those songs with fervent lyrics are defused by Seger's dispassionate delivery."

She calls "Lock and Load," "a standard aging rocker's lament." [Standard? Since when is this a genre? It's the only song I've heard dealing with the subject matter this way.] Golden Boy is "a smarmy love song to his young song in the manner of John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy." [Does she think Lennon's song is smarmy too?]

"Fans of old-style Seger will find no raunchy vignettes or spirited rave-ups here." [Of course, fans of old-style Seger won't find many raunchy vignettes or spirited rave-ups on his previous albums either. Raunchy vignettes? Spirited rave-ups? I think she's got him confused with Rod Stewart.]

"Rare is a recording so moribund that it can't be animated by a Tom Waits song, but even Seger's cover of Wait's surreal rant, '16 Shells From a 30-6' fails to enliven this sluggish collection." [God, I bet she's proud of that sentence. What fancy footwork, what word power! What bias!] Nicole Arthur, October? 1995, Washington Post. "Bob Seger's Slight Moves"


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