Covers albums. Always tricky. The artist concerned often gets left looking like nothing but a glorified wedding singer, unable to improve on the strength of the original song. Then there odd moments of genius, like Johnny Cash and ‘Hurt’, Whitney Houston’s version of ‘I Will Always Love You’ and even the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Always on My Mind’. The elephant in the room is when does a cover version become a re-imaging and when does it just stay faithful to the original? On ‘Only the Strong Survive’ legendary rocker Bruce Springsteen has employed a little of both of those strategies to produce something greater than the sum of its individual parts and something that is simply a pleasure to listen to.
Soul, R&B, Stax and Motown have always been part of Springsteen’s make up. He famously once said that if you played the Jersey boardwalk in the 70s you were essentially playing a version of Soul and R&B. Throughout the 70s and 80s he flirted with covers of songs like ‘Soul Man’, Twist and Shout’ and ‘Summertime Blues’ so it is not surprise to find him, on this his 21st album, throwing his hat into the ring for good on a 15 track project designed to just let his voice be the first and most important instrument on display.
Springsteen, producer Ron Aniello and engineer Rob Lebret christened themselves the ‘Nightshift’ during the late-night, mid-Covid sessions it took to piece this homage to some of the great and some of the forgotten lost Soul classics that were part of Springsteen’s formative years. Adding in some uplifting, Gospel-tinged backing vocals and some stella E-Street horns, the trio have brought these classics to life whilst being able to add a little blue-collar charm and gloss to them at the same time.
Title track, ‘Only the Strong Survive’ takes Jerry Butler’s original and gives it a little Jersey boardwalk make-over in some style, giving you the first inkling that this is not just a straight covers album and that the Boss and his raspy, gravel-throated voice can actually do justice to the songs on offer here and make them his own. A version of the Commodores 1985 classic ‘Nightshift’, which pays tribute to legends like Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye, will be recognisable to all with any sort of musical heritage or knowledge but in Springsteen’s hands it becomes a tribute to the blue collar folks working through the night in difficult conditions for minimum wage just as much as it is about the music that gets them through.
Listen hard enough and you can hear the musical influence of the Boss across a number of the songs here. ‘I Wish It Would Rain’ comes across as an extension of Sprignsteen’s very own ‘Mary’s Place’ without losing any of it’s Soul and R&B heart whilst ‘Hey, Western Union Man’, thanks to some deft production choices and values carries all the intensity and urgency of classics like ‘Born to Run’.
In other places, the choices and the sounds are more faithful and clearly reflect an artist having a whole bunch of fun with songs that have resonated with him for years. David Ruffin’s ‘What Becomes of the Broken Hearted’, perhaps the most recognisable, culturally important song in the collection, suits Springsteens voice but is a straight cover rather than any sort of re-imagining as it builds towards its natural ending and crescendo whilst his version of Diana Ross’ ‘Someday We’ll be Together’ brings the album to a satisfying close with some very ‘Supremes’ like backing vocals.
The fun doesn’t stop there either. ‘Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)’. a 1965 rarity from Frank Wilson, contains a Gospel-tinged drive and gang vocal chorus that invokes images of sweaty clubs and packed dance floors whilst ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’, begins all ‘Leader of the Pack’, drum-driven urgency before settling into it’s traditional ‘honey-for-the-ears’ status that we all know and love.
‘Only the Strong Survive’ is a delight and a pure pleasure to listen to. Sometimes you forget that that is what we are meant to listen to music for. We get bogged down in the intricacy and meaning of lyrics sometimes, the worthiness of an artist or the zeitgeist moment that a particular song or album is meant to encompass. ‘Only the Strong Survive’ is there for your listening pleasure and nothing more. It’s a vanity project from one of music’s ultimate curators – this is what Springsteen likes and he’d love you to enjoy it too. You know what? I’m in, 100% and will be spinning this album in the weeks and months to come when I simply want to put a smile on my face and listen to some uplifting classics from a glorious time in the music industry, done well, with a little Jersey boardwalk gloss added in for good measure.
Track list: 1. Only the Strong Survive 2. Soul Days 3. Nightshift 4. Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) 5. The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore 6. Turn Back the Hands of Time 7. When She Was My Girl 8. Hey, Western Union Man 9. I Wish it Would Rain 10. Don’t Play That Song 11. Any Other Way 12. I Forgot to be Your Lover 13. 7 Rooms of Gloom 14. What Becomes of the Broken Hearted 15. Someday We’ll be Together Record Label: Columbia Records Release Date: 11th November Buy ‘Only the Strong Survive’ now