Usually when a renowned singer-songwriter releases a ‘covers’ album at a late point in the their career, it can go one of two ways. Some, such as Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan, are able to to put a unique spin on them with their own finely honed interpretive skills. Others, such as Rod Stewart’s notoriously bland takes on the Great American Songbook and 1970s’ MOR ballads, show an artist who’s run out of ideas and the effort amounts to little more than glorified karaoke. Bruce Springsteen, the New Jersey heartland rocker whose most recent original album came out just two years ago, is the latest artist to tackle such a task with his album of soul covers, Only the Strong Survive.
On paper, Springsteen & soul music should be a match made in Heaven: his raspy howl, histrionic live shows and melodramatic anthems all owe a debt to soul legends such as James Brown, Sam Moore, and Sam Cooke. Throughout his career, he’s covered R&B classics such as “Twist and Shout,” “Shout, “The Dark End of the Street,” “Dancing in the Streets,” and several other classics to great effect in his live shows, and has even mastered the genre through his own original compositions such as “Back in Your Arms” and “I Wish I Were Blind.”
Only the Strong Survive is a 16 song collection of some of Bruce’s favorite songs of the genre, covering legendary classics from artists such as The Temptations, The Supremes, Aretha Franklin, and The Commodores. The songs speak for themselves: “Only the Strong Survive,” “Turn Back the Hands of Time,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” and “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” are defining classics so indelibly associated with their original artists that few have attempted their own takes.
For the most part, Only the Strong Surive is a pleasant if inessential listen; Bruce’s voice is in fine vintage, and he’s certainly qualified to provide his own special touch to these classics while retaining what made the originals so great in the first place. That’s the main problem with the record: Bruce performs these songs well, but he doesn’t really add anything to them. At its worst, the record feels like one long karaoke track with Bruce providing a guide vocal; the songs sound almost too faithful to the originals, save for the occasional key change to accommodate Bruce’s less agile 73 year old voice. He’s aided in that department by backing vocalists and Ron Aiello’s crisp production adding some heft to the proceedings.
The song selection gets point for veering off the beaten path at times; while most of the songs date from the classic Motown / Stax period of the 1960s’, two of the songs were comeback hits in the 1980s’ for veteran acts who had been struggling for some time: the Commodores’ “Nightshift” and the Four Tops’ “When She Was My Girl,” both of which are among the better tracks on the record. He also teams up with the great Sam Moore on two tracks, including Willam Bell’s obscure “To Be a Lover,” best remembered for being a hit for Billy Idol. These tracks make up the most successful,
It would be inaccurate to call Only the Strong Survive a phoned in effort; the production, the arrangements and the song selection all indicate that Bruce approached this project with the same level of passion and attention to detail that he gave to his previous covers album, 2006’s The Seeger Sessions. However, it is much easier to leave your mark on traditional Irish folk songs than songs already defined by their originators, and one can’t help but notice a feeling of sterility and vanity permeating throughout Only the Strong Survive. It won’t make you forget the originals, and if anything will make you want to revisit them. While Bruce never ascends to Rod Stewart levels of blandness, he doesn’t leave his own unique mark on them, either.