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Bruce Springsteen - Only the Strong Survive review

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Whatever people think of Bruce Springsteen, he’s certainly still able to surprise: witness in recent years ‘Springsteen on Broadway’, ‘Western Stars’, the ‘From My Home To Yours’ radio series – and now, another release no-one saw coming: a collection of 15 soul covers, ‘Only The Strong Survive’.

Bruce announced the new album with an introductory video on YouTube explaining the idea (beginning like one of his radio shows), saying it came out of a lockdown project of non-original music between himself, producer Ron Aniello, and engineer Rob Lebret, who named themselves ‘The Nightshift’, working on these songs in their downtime. In true Springsteen perfectionist fashion, a first album’s worth of material was shelved, although ‘Nightshift’ gives a clue that maybe that song escaped, as it made the eventual selection. His theme was declared to be songs which put his voice at the forefront, rather than merely serving the music.

The particular inspiration here was favourites mostly from the 1960s and 1970s by Frank Wilson, Smokey Robinson, David Ruffin, Jerry Butler, Levi Stubbs, Sam Moore, Tyrone Davis, William Bell, Diana Ross & The Supremes, and others – the music was described as ‘sonically modernised’, staying true to the originals, with Bruce adding his own spin vocally. It may be no coincidence that the first words heard are ‘I remember…’ He continued to set out his stall clearly with ‘Soul Days’ (‘taking us back when everything was all right’), not only giving Sam Moore backing vocals (as he had done 30 years ago on ‘Soul Driver’) but also – in the spirit of Sam Cooke’s ‘Havin’ A Party’ - crediting some of his own favourites at the end, including Sam & Dave themselves.

Bruce has been no stranger to soul music, having frequently incorporated both classics and deep cuts into his live work, from ‘Twist And Shout’ through ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg’, ‘Higher And Higher’, ‘Raise Your Hand’, ‘Sweet Soul Music’, ‘Drift Away’, and ‘Shout’ to the ‘Apollo Medley’ (‘The Way You Do The Things You Do’/’634-5789’), with many more along the way; he’s paid his dues to this material since his earliest days, and hence can claim the right to this tribute.

It would be easy for treatments like this, particularly given the faithfully re-created backing tracks, to come across as somewhat cheesy nostalgia, but it’s clearly been important for Bruce to respect his soul heroes by keeping that original foundation, only letting his mature voice be the new element. In so doing, he summons up over 50 years of soul fandom, investing the songs with authenticity – he’s lost none of his trademark intensity, and can still summon up a falsetto where it fits. Witness his full-throated work on ‘Western Union Man’, ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’, and ‘What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted’ where 99-and-a-half percent won’t do, as Wilson Pickett declared. In the process, Bruce has joined the dots from those classic influences to his own material – the direct path to ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’ (‘Someday We’ll Be Together’) through to ‘Back In Your Arms’(‘I Forgot To Be Your Lover’) is made clear here.

Intriguingly, the album title also refers to this compilation as being ‘Covers Vol.1’, with every suggestion that at least one more sequel is due, possibly as early as spring 2023; whether that will also be comprised of more soul songs - or some other, presumably vintage style - remains to be seen. Those lockdown sessions were supposedly very fruitful, this being just a first taste.

One of the most welcome attributes of Bruce’s work has been the timing, intentional or otherwise, of his releases – ‘The Rising’ being an obvious example, coming as an artistic response to the tragic events of 9/11. Now twenty years on, trust this music to warm your spirits through the global winter of discontent, as hard times come again once more. Who better able to accomplish that than a rocker with a heart full of soul. 


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