Springsteen covers soul standards on Only the Strong Survive

BY XAVIER JOHNSON

Covers are an essential part of musical history. Different genres have distinct cultures that influence how a cover track manifests. Blues and country music have standards. Hip-hop has sampling. Rock music typically looks to transform the works it draws upon, offering a new perspective on a classic tune. Creating a full album of covers is generally a labor of love that provides insight into what inspires an artist. The legendary Bruce Springsteen is no stranger to releasing a cover album. In 2006 he released We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, a collection of 13 folk covers from Pete Seeger’s deep catalog. Now, 16 years later, he’s back with a similar record that draws inspiration from an entire movement rather than one artist.

Springsteen’s new record Only the Strong Survive is far from his trademark rock and roll sound, but it still thematically fits into his catalog. His music is integral in the great American songbook. However, the fertile branches of America’s music are rooted in the contributions of pioneering black artists. Much of what rock became during the 73-year-old songwriter’s heyday, from the style to the sound, was influenced by the soul legends of the 1960’s and 1970’s. These artists, from Diana Ross to The Temptations, pushed the boundaries of music and crafted a timeless, distinctly American genre.

It’s fitting that one of the country’s flagbearers has a deep appreciation for those that came before. Only the Strong Survive is a love letter to the music that Springsteen both appreciates and admires. Covering music that is such an intrinsic part of the American canon is a tough task. It’s an era of music that can’t fully be replicated. There’s a certain cultural context and inspiration that Springsteen lacks and contributes to the covers being toothless. The soul music of half a century ago is marked by its lively instrumentation, distinct recording sound, and unbound energy.

This isn’t to say Springsteen is approaching the album disrespectfully. He clearly loves the art form and all it brings. He isn’t some major white artist looking at the black musical tradition as a goldmine to capitalize on, but as a treasured part of musical history that deserves a tribute. From the style that Springsteen adopts to his uncharacteristically soulful delivery, it’s evident that he’s all-in on faithfully recreating the songs. That’s where the issue comes in. These classic tracks have been covered plenty of times and more often than not, the covers add something new to its legacy. Sticking so close to the originals makes the covers unessential.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER

The William Bell original “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” is a perfect example. The well-explored song has been covered in a variety of ways, from faithful recreations to stellar reimaginings. Robert Cray’s version brings his fantastic guitar skills to the forefront, turning it into a smooth blues lament. R&B singer Jaheim flipped it into a modernized radio hit with the same passion infused with a hard street edge. Springsteen’s version is fine, but doesn’t really do anything interesting. When taking tracks from one of the most vibrant times in music history, it’s necessary to either match that energy or provide a new perspective on an old idea.

There’s nothing blatantly bad on the album, far from it. The music is good and Springsteen’s performance is a highlight. From his powerful vocals on “Hey, Western Union Man” to his slick delivery on “When She Was My Girl,” he is clearly having fun and the feeling is palpable. Unfortunately, the backing band generally doesn’t match what he brings to the table. Instrumentation is a problem on Only the Strong Survive. Outside of a few elements like the E Street horns and a handful of backing vocal contributions, the lion’s share of the playing was handled by Springsteen and renowned songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ron Aniello. This creative process becomes an issue because it clashes with the roots of the music it’s adapting.

“Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” exemplifies the production dampening of what otherwise would be a good track. Springsteen does a wonderful job singing with passion, but the elements surrounding him are bland. Frank Wilson’s classic is exploding with vivacity with booming backing vocals and a band that’s interconnected. Springsteen’s version is simply too clean. There’s no sense of unity between the different instruments. The drums, overbearing bass, and strings lack any bite or excitement. An underrated aspect of what makes post-war soul music click is the vibrant production. Modern artists like Leon Bridges are capable of generating a sound that applies the lessons of yesteryear to a modern context. This record feels like its using the standard clean rock production for a genre that doesn’t suit it.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER

Everything comes together on “7 Rooms of Gloom” to create a truly remarkable moment that deserves to sit at the table with the Four Tops’ original version. It’s a fantastic cover. Springsteen is on fire, completely letting loose and belting to the heavens. The drums and backing vocals are ebullient for once. The horns add a dense layer of melodic verve throughout. For the 2:39 it lasts it’s a whirlwind in the best way possible. Springsteen also does a good job in some of the slower, more gentle tracks. His voice is angelic on the Frankie Valli tune “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” and beams with personality on Tyrone Davis’ excellent “Turn Back the Hands of Time.” There’s plenty to like, but some of the aforementioned issues hold back its potential.

For those that love Springsteen, this album is worth a look. While it isn’t his standard affair it’s nice to hear him so full of joy performing songs that clearly mean a lot to him. Mileage may vary for soul fans. On one hand, it’s nice to hear classics in a new light, but the covers don’t really shake things up. The originals are so great and the music of that era was lightning caught in a bottle. It’s hard to bring those songs into 2022 and do them justice. Springsteen’s brilliance allowed him to do as good a job as anyone, but there’s still meat left on the bone. The lasting thought when finishing Only the Strong Survive is how great this album must sound performed live.

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