Boss Soul: Bruce Springsteen’s ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE

When a singer-songwriter puts out an album of covers, they are usually making some kind of musical statement, and Bruce Springsteen’s new release and 21st studio album, Only the Strong Survive, is no exception. The Boss, creator of such immortal works as Darkness on the Edge of Town, Born in the USA and The Rising now, for the second time in his long career, offers his public a collection of songs composed by others. For his earlier covers effort, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions from 2006, the guiding thread was genre, in an album consisting of traditional US folk material recorded in the footsteps of folk icon Pete Seeger. It is genre too that defines the new album, but in this case a very different genre – namely soul music, jewel of the black community but also a crossover genre much appreciated by white audiences. Typically seen as a stadium rock musician, Springsteen has never confined himself exclusively to that area, and the latest evidence is this collection of fifteen songs in which he pays tribute to some of the finest of soul artists – interpreting songs mostly from the 1960s and 1970s (a few numbers are more recent), with particular, but not exclusive, attention to Detroit’s famed Motown label and its archetypal soul creations.  

The album’s title, evoking resistance and resilience, has a contemporary resonance, but at the same time suggests a project not exempt from possible rivalry on Springsteen’s part with his predecessors and peers. The title comes from the album’s opening track, ‘Only the Strong Survive’, a song first recorded in 1968 by cult soul artist Jerry Butler but also subsequently covered by Elvis Presley. Some on learning of the title may have thought in the first place of Elvis and (mis)read the album as a declaration of competition (or equality) of the Boss with the late King.

As regards living artists, it may not be coincidence that this offering comes not so long after Bob Dylan’s recent experimentation with cover versions in the ’Sinatra trilogy’, his triad of standards associated with Frank Sinatra and his classic epoch. The genres are different, but the covering impulse is similar. Indeed, there is also a transmedia parallel with Dylan’s recent book The Philosophy of Modern Song, with its commentaries on 66 songs selected by the master songwriter. Springsteen in a sense is doing on record what Dylan does in his book, both artists highlighting songs by others that are important to them: both offerings could thus be called playlists. There is no direct overlap in content between the two respective works. Dylan nonetheless includes a fair sprinkling of soul/R&B numbers among the song choices in his book, taking on board one act (Motown’s the Temptations) also featured by Springsteen. In The Philosophy of Modern Song. Dylan chooses the Temptations’ ‘Ball of Confusion’, though it has recently emerged that ‘I Wish It Would Rain’, the song now representing the group on Springsteen’s album, has actually been covered by Dylan! He laid it down in an emotive rendering in the Shot of Love sessions in 1981, and as of 2021 that recording is available on the 16th volume in Dylan’s Bootleg Series, Springtime in New York. In a further Dylan/Springsteen/soul music connection, we may note that Dylan’s playlist in his book also includes Edwin Starr’s ‘War’, a Motown hit covered by Springsteen on his album Live 1975-1985.

Only the Strong Survive’s packaging lists the songs together with songwriter credits, in line with usual practice; the album’s Wikipedia entry goes one further and, in a gesture to be welcomed by fans, lists not only the songwriters but also the artists who first recorded each song: Some of the most celebrated of Motown acts feature, certainly – the Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Four Tops – albeit not with their most famous songs: so no ‘My Girl’, ‘Reach Out, I’ll Be There ‘ or ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’, but instead ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’ (Supremes) and ‘Seven Rooms of Gloom’ and ‘When She Was My Girl’ (Four Tops), and, as we have seen, ‘I Wish It Would Rain’ (Temptations), Other artists represented may not be household names outside the soul community, but are nonetheless the creators of recognised classic songs – these include Jerry Butler (the title track and ‘Hey, Western Union Man’), Tyrone Davis (‘Turn Back the Hands of Time’), and William Bell (‘Any Other Way’ and ‘I Forgot to Be Your Lover’), as well as another Motown act, Jimmy Ruffin (‘What Becomes of the Brokenhearted’). At the end of the track ‘Soul Days’ (originally recorded by Dobie Gray), Springsteen reaches out beyond his playlist by namechecking more soul artists (‘I want to hear some Wilson Pickett’, a wish repeated for Joe Tex and Sam and Dave). A wish is party granted, as in fact the surviving half of the much-loved Sam and Dave duo, Sam Moore, appears as guest vocalist on two of the tracks, namely ‘I Forgot To Be Your Lover’ and ‘Soul Days’ itself. Further outreach is provided by the inclusion of the Commodores’ ‘Nightshift’, a song written in 1985 as a postmortem homage to two giants of soul music, Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye. On another note, one cannot avoid noticing that Diana Ross and the Supremes, with the valedictory ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’, are the only female original artists to feature unequivocally on the playlist (I say ‘unequivocally’ as Springsteen’s take on Ben E. King’s classic ‘Don’t Play That Song’ – he allows himself a spoken add-on at the end – does not strictly follow King’s original and exhibits similarities with the later hit version by Aretha Franklin). Also to be noted is the fact that one song, ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’, was actually first recorded by a white artist, Frankie Valli.

With this carefully chosen song selection under his belt, how does Bruce Springsteen, as a white superstar, shape up to the challenge of interpreting this black material? There is a tradition of such interpretations, not always successful. Classic soul covers by white acts such as The Band’s ‘Don’t Do It’ or Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ have to be balanced against much more superficial renditions like the Rolling Stones’ ‘Harlem Shuffle’ or the Grateful Dead’s ‘Dancing in the Street’. Regarding entire albums, a successful instance of such projects is one known to few but deserving of greater fame, the sensitive and vibrant collaboration of 1971 by Laura Nyro with Labelle, Gonna Take a Miracle.

Close listening to Springsteen’s fifteen covers in parallel with the originals should convince the listener that he has risen admirably to the challenge. The arrangements, featuring strings, horn section and backup vocalists, are more than respectful of the originals, as are Springsteen’s warm, passionate and carefully articulated vocals. The singer gets inside the songs and the deep emotions they convey, with a vocal approach that recalls some of his more intimate albums such as Tunnel of Love or Western Stars. There are a few minor lyric changes here and there, but nothing to write home about. More significant are the additions brought to a couple of songs, namely ‘Soul Days’ (as seen above) and ‘Don’t Play That Song’. On the latter Springsteen interpolates lines including ‘I remember those summer nights down by the shore / As the band played with you in my arms’, in what can only be called a Springsteenisation, a throwback to the boardwalk world of an early song like ‘4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)’. Each listener will have their favourites, but my own choice of outstanding tracks would include the title song, which in its passionate delivery matches up to Jerry Butler (and Elvis); ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’, where the female backing vocals help recreate something of the energy of the Supremes’ original; and ‘Seven Rooms of Gloom’, where the Boss achieves a remarkably persuasive imitation of the unique vocal style of the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs.

If this album is making a statement, it can only be to affirm the vital importance to Bruce Springsteen of classic soul as part of his musical heritage. Its chart performance (US No 8, UK No 2) suggests it is being well received by the artist’s fan base. The Boss’s admirers will also surely be tantalised by the words that appear in discreet small print on the front cover, namely ‘Covers Vol. 1’. This suggests a second volume in the offing – and if so, will it be another set of soul covers, or will it feature a different genre? Meanwhile, this album may not be Born To Run, but it is a more than welcome addition to Bruce Springsteen’s remarkable catalogue that will provide hours of listening pleasure and musical  education to the Boss’s many followers whoever they be.


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