Album Reviews

Bruce Springsteen – Only The Strong Survive: Covers Vol 1

(Columbia) UK release date: 11 November 2022

Essentially, this is The Boss doing karaoke. But when it’s done this well and with so much obvious love for the source material, it’s irresistible

Bruce Springsteen - Only The Strong Survive What do you if you’re seventy-something, have written some of the greatest songs in history, you’ve sold your back catalogue for a tidy sum, and your place in the annals of cultural history is assured? Well, if you’re Bruce Springsteen, you go and throw a party.

Only The Strong Survive is the sound of The Boss kicking off his shoes and having a bit of a laugh. He’s brought some of the E Street Band back together, and there’s two duets with legendary 87-year-old soul man Sam Moore. As every track is a cover version of an old soul classic, there are no new Springsteen songs, so it may not be as essential as a Born To Run or Born In The USA. What it is though, is a lot of fun.

The importance of old soul music is a vital part of the Springsteen story – his live shows are peppered with exhilarating versions of the likes of Sweet Soul Music and Hold On I’m Coming, and it’s usually the point where an E-Steet Band gig becomes a mass celebratory event. That’s what shines through Only The Strong Survive – as with Springsteen’s previous covers project (The Seeger Sessions), he perfectly understands what makes these songs shine: that sense of unbridled joy.

After all, if you can suppress a smile hearing Springsteen tear his way through Frank Wilson‘s Northern Soul classic Do I Love You, there may be something medically wrong with you. These covers are faithful and reverent – anyone expecting Springsteen to put his own spin on a song like What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted is likely to be disappointed. Yet what’s truly impressive about Only The Strong Survive is Springsteen’s voice – at 73 years old, he’d be forgiven for toning down that famous bellow, but hearing him tackle the famous chorus of The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore is like hearing a man half his age do a very good Scott Walker impression.

As usual with cover albums, the record works best when it dives into less familiar territory. Dobie Gray‘s Soul Days is an early highlight, with Springsteen unable to suppress a chuckle at the line “found my favourite t-shirt, started rolling up my sleeves, like James Dean, thinking I was still 19” – when Sam Moore appears at the end to self-referentially namedrop various other musical icons (“I wanna hear some Wilson Pickett! Some Joe Tex! I wanna hear some Sam and Dave!”) it’s an absolute delight. As on the rest of the album, the E-Street Horns play a pivotal role, as important to the sound here as they were on Tenth Avenue Freeze Out back in 1975.

There’s also a powerful rendition of The Temptations‘ I Wish It Would Rain with Springsteen’s throaty drawl conjuring up just the right amount of heartbreak, while Don’t Play That Song sees him drawing on his own youth, ad-libbing lines about dancing during “those summer nights down at the shore”. It may be a Ben E King song originally, but this sounds like a classic Springsteen original.

Only The Commodores‘ Nightshift seems like a bit of an outlier (possibly due to being the most recent track here, originally released in 1985), and the emotional power of the original is inevitably lost slightly, yet Springsteen still treats it with a great deal of reverence. Admittedly, this is pretty much Bruce does karaoke, but when it’s done this well and with so much obvious love for the source material, it’s irresistible. Volume 2 can’t come quickly enough.

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