A Return to Soul
No Fender 52 Telecaster, no Fender Esquire, no Les Paul; Bruce Springsteen wanted to make an album where he “just sang” and he achieves that goal on his 21st studio album, Only the Strong Survive (November 11, 2022; Columbia).
But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find he has done a lot more than that. Springsteen came of age in the sixties, and throughout his life he has mined that period. In the late '70s and early '80s, for example, The Boss frequently played covers, and he and the E Street Band’s Steve Van Zandt performed these classics as they were cutting their teeth in local bars. In fact, many of their live gigs have featured soul and Motown songs as encores.
More specifically in recent years, as he has aged, Springsteen has understandably been in more reflective mood, telling and reformulating his life story both in words and in his personally revealing Broadway shows, which culminated in 2020’s ‘farewell missive’ Letter To You. Where to go after that? For Springsteen the answer is to revisit the unbridled joy of his early years through his latest album.
Initially only joined in the studio by producer Ron Aniello and engineer Rob Lebret, Springsteen sifted through the great American songbook to identify these 15 tunes, which reminded him of the period at the very start of his career. “If you played in a bar on the Central New Jersey shore in the Sixties and Seventies,” he said, “you played soul music.”
The album appropriately kicks off with a group of backing singers repeating the words “I remember” as if we are slipping in and out of a dream, before Springsteen recalls his first love, in which: “the whole thing went wrong/ And my momma had some great advice/ I thought I'd put it into words of this song/ Cause I can still hear her say..." Shortly after, he breaks into a croon with the chorus “only the strong survive.” Originally written and sung by Jerry Butler in 1968, this soul song and its lyrics give context to what is to come.
Soul Days featuring Sam Moore is more upbeat, but in this album’s introductory part I prefer Nightshift because it feels like Springsteen has sought to make it more his own. This version of the Commodores’ classic is much more gritty than the original, as is his take on The Walker Brothers' 1966 hit, The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore.
Springsteen’s cover of the Temptations' I Wish It Would Rain is dignified, while Sam Moore returns to add sparkle to a cover of Booker T. Jones and William Bell’s song I Forgot To Be Your Lover. Springsteen desperately cries “I live with emptiness” before 7 Rooms of Gloom cicks into gear, though not much extra is brought to What Becomes of the Brokenhearted; you have to take it for what it is: pure nostalgia.
The collection closes with the rousing Someday We'll Be Together, which again is enhanced by a medley of top-draw female backing singers.
Springsteen must have revelled in choosing the songs for Only The Strong Survive, showcasing his fine soul voice, and wrapping them in sumptuous horn and choral sections. The result is, simultaneously, very different to the majority of the work he is known for, and yet… it has been there all the time.