Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Only the Strong Survive’ Isn’t Strong Enough to Be the Soul Covers Record Fans Hoped For: Album Review

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When it was announced that Bruce Springsteen would celebrate the sweet sounds of soul music with a new solo album, “Only the Strong Survive,” one could, in the words of the immortal James Brown, go into a cold sweat. The idea of an album of classic soul covers from a man who truly understands the form in this, our winter of discontent 2022, sounds righteous. When Springsteen and the E Street Band were first playing the bars along the Jersey shore, they were known for biting down hard on AM radio epiphanies from soul gods such as Eddie Floyd, Sam Cooke, Arthur Conley and Gary U.S. Bonds. with holy, boozy brashness. Even on his last major tour of 2016-2017, he and the band wound hammer their way through a gospel-inflected “Shout” by the Isley Brothers with playful reverie.

So when an album was announced that would be taken from what Springsteen called “the great American songbook of the ’60s and ’70s,” with the E Street Horns and duet partner Sam Moore from the legendary Sam & Dave, you had to think: C’mon. How did this not happen sooner?

Yet Springsteen’s 2022 sessions with his decade-long co-producer get bogged down in an overly rich arrangement of strings and horns, sounding so much tamer than the tortured, joyful, loving, hating, sweaty soul you’d expect from a man who once sang and played it like a wanton preacher wailing for salivation. Instead of heating up and boiling over, “Only the Strong Survives” is often coolly reserved and occasionally dispassionate. This is not the soulful Springsteen renowned for mashing up his own molten lava-like “Light of Day” or “Rosalita” with Wilson Pickett’s “Land Of 1000 Dances” — not even close.

Now, you could say that Bruce Springsteen at age 73 is not the Bruce Springsteen of age 23 when he was raging through the most tumultuous of amped-up R&B covers at the Stone Pony as part of the best bar band this side of Memphis. But Springsteen’s fine-grained growl is in strong, fighting shape and ready to roar on happy, horn-driven songs such as Ahmet Ertegun and Betty Nelson’s “Don’t Play That Song” (a hit, first for Ben E. King, then Aretha Franklin), and on smoldering near-spirituals such as The Commodores’ “Nightshift.” Despite its sound being too scrubbed clean for the true heft of deep, abiding R&B, the sage nuances of giddy romanticism on the Butler-Gamble-Huff romper “Hey, Western Union Man” and the stymied ache of lost love on Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong’s “I Wish It Would Rain” present Springsteen’s hauntingly effective vocals as a clear and present danger, still.

Besides, in R&B years, Bruce is still a pup. Take Sam Moore for example. He’s 87, in ass-kicking vocal shape, and gives the Boss a raw run for his money on the William Bell/Booker T. Jones’ classic “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” and ’70s troubadour Jonnie Barnett’s sinewy “Soul Days.”

If too many of the other tracks fall victim to tepid tones and overly silken arrangements, maybe lay part of the blame for that on Springsteen’s co-producer Ron Aniello. It would seem to be Aniello  a producer known for MOR favorites from Gavin McGraw to Jars of Clay – who has been blunting Bruce’s lusty, crusty vocals and tamping down Springsteen’s band’s buoyant brand of stadium rock and rough R&B since 2012’s “Wrecking Ball.” 

In Aniello’s hands, the last two tracks of Springsteen’s soul covers album – Jimmy Ruffin’s elegantly complex “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” and the Supremes’ splashy epic, “Someday We’ll Be Together” – mostly fall flat through no one’s fault but their producers’ saccharine floridity. Springsteen was made for bittersweet Spector-ian majesty (see 1975’s “Born to Run” and 2007’s “Magic), and Aniello lets the Boss down. 

This is not to say, in any way, that great, studio-recorded soul must sound like it was recorded in a swamp in 1967 with Booker T’s “Green Onions” crew. But the great R&B that Springsteen is trying to get to throughout “Only the Strong Survive” must have some blood and guts to its production, so Aniello is not doing Bruce any favors. Not within the last 10 years, and certainly not often enough on “Only the Strong Survive.” Bring back Brendan O’Brien, or Chuck Plotkin, even.

That said, when “Survive” thrives, it does so by making the most of its familiar Springsteen-ian tics and tropes, like the bell-toned celesta that brings back the spirit of the late Danny Federici on the Motown-ish “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do).” Or the way that Aniello pushes Bruce’s drawl to lean into the phrase “everything to me” as if stretching out boardwalk salt water taffy on the Four Tops’ sleek “When She Was My Girl.” 

The slow, brassy “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”  not usually identified as a soul song, written as it was by the Four Seasons’ Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe as a hit for Scott Walker and his Brothers – pulls from Springsteen’s wall-of-sound ’70s, but also wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 2019’s sky-high and sandy “Western Stars.”

The track’s open-air grandeur and opulent strings gives Springsteen’s sorrow a great plain on which to boldly roam. Credit where credit’s due: this is where Aniello’s slick comportment comes in, and it is this track that should have been the album’s closer.

Ultimately, Springsteen’s new soul covers album goes at least a little way toward being a handsome declaration of a life’s inspiration and intention. But it should have been so much more than merely “covering” — and beyond mere survival. It could have been more lived-in and mightier, something genuinely strong built from muscle memory. But again, in R&B years, he’s still young. Maybe next time.