Review: Only The Strong Survive
You knew I was going to have some thoughts about Bruce Springsteen's latest record, which is one full of soul and R&B covers.
While I’ve enjoyed some of Bruce Springsteen’s explorations of different genres of music—albums like Western Stars and The Seeger Sessions—Only the Strong Survive was one I was primed to really enjoy. My favorite musician doing an album of classic soul and R&B is something almost perfectly engineered to get my interest.
I got a kick out of Springsteen’s response when asked about why he was doing this album, something to the effect of he just wanted to sing some songs. While it’s certainly not in the upper pantheon of Springsteen releases, it’s not a bad album to put on and, perhaps more importantly, I’m glad it’s here as an artifact attesting to the fact that the Boss is still out there working and being the Boss.
The strongest songs on the album are, appropriately enough, the songs that were released as singles. The high energy of “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” is positively infectious. The propulsive quality through the horns and backing vocals gives it a real charge. I’m curious to hear which (if any) of these songs make it into the setlist for Springsteen’s 2023 tour with the E Street Band. I could definitely see this one making an appearance particularly because of that energy. “Don’t Play That Song” is one of my favorite tracks (it’s probably my favorite Aretha Franklin song) so hearing the Boss cover it was an automatic hit for me. Bruce is almost singing like a crooner rather than a soul singer, which works perfectly, and there’s great guitar work on the track as well.
The best song on Only the Strong Survive, for me at least, was the second single,“Night Shift.” I think Bruce does a great job with this later/post Lionel Richie-Commodores song, giving some of that smooth 80s R&B feeling that one gets from the original track but in a way that feels of a piece with the retro Northern soul sensibility that runs throughout the entire album.
It’s a song that doesn’t seem like an obvious pick for Springsteen to cover and yet it works well. The lyrics, with their acknowledgment of those great soul singers such as Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, do feel like a perfect match for Springsteen, who is so aware of the history and lineage in which he’s participating as a musician.
Marvin, he was a friend of mine
And he could sing a song, his heart in every line
Marvin sang of the joy and pain
He opened up our minds, and I still can hear him say
The Boss enlists Sam Moore, of the famed duo Sam & Dave, to join him on two tracks—”Soul Days” and “I Forgot to Be Your Lover.” Those songs are two of the better ones on this album as well and I like to think that Moore’s presence made everyone step up their game.
The weaker parts of the album are the songs most everyone knows. “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” does have an interesting, almost mariachi vibe to it, but ultimately it comes up short if you’ve heard the Walker Brothers version. “Someday We’ll Be Together” also just seems unsatisfying. Plus, Springsteen already has a song by that name in his catalogue that he wrote (and that I enjoy a lot more).
Those songs feel almost like karaoke while the better performances on the album (the songs I’ve highlighted so far) are actual reinterpretations and rearrangements. Those are the only songs when I listen and wonder about why this was made. Those performances just seem kind of empty and hollow. This album is at its best when Springsteen is shining a light on some music that maybe slipped through the cracks for most people. When he’s delving into the songs we already know, it doesn’t work.
In the same way that I enjoyed Bob Dylan as he explored some of his musical interests with those cover records in the 2010’s (specifically, his interest in Sinatra/standards/the Great American Song Book), I enjoy this Springsteen album that shows him engaging with and performing songs he loves. Only the Strong Survive isn’t one of Springsteen’s greatest albums but it’s interesting and features a few tracks I really enjoy (and hope they make their way into the concert rotation). While I hope for more E Street Band records, I definitely would not mind more albums by the Boss in this vein.
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I didn't much like this record, and I don't think anyone was more surprised by that than me. I'm not sure what I was expecting--and that could be part of the problem-- but to my ear, it just felt flat.
That said, you raise a couple of points I totally agree with. First, I appreciate that he didn't just play the hits, as it were. That would've been easy to do. Probably would've sold well, too. The lesser-known tracks seem to work well comparatively. Second, picking "Night Shift" as a song to cover left me scratching my head.
All of that aside, he's at the point where he can pretty much make whatever sort of record he wants-- I'm glad he's interested in pushing the envelope a little bit.