The album’s title is, of course, mostly bluster. Despite its tough-guy posturing, Only the Strong Survive – Bruce Springsteen’s new record of old soul covers – deals in yearning and hurt, in summer nights remembered and love squandered. Its true theme is vulnerability. These, though, are tender moments delivered with the effusive, upbeat vigour of the soul revue segments of Springsteen’s live shows and the Boss’s lived-in, barrel-chested growl: a very feelgood record about feeling bad.
The title track, Only the Strong Survive, was originally recorded by former Impressions singer Jerry Butler in 1968; it finds a heartbroken Butler being consoled by his mother. She prescribes resilience and a brave face: you can’t just go to pieces. (It’s hard not to hear the veiled wisdom of the civil rights struggle here too.) Springsteen and his long-time producer Ron Aniello, who, in the absence of most of the E Street Band, plays the majority of the instruments, add oomph in the form of thrumming organ, a cadre of balmy backing vocalists and the E Street horns. You can hear Springsteen chuckling ruefully in the intro. His brawny vocal – that of an older man – contrasts with the protagonist’s youthful romantic despair.
Throughout his long and exuberant career, Springsteen has, naturally, paid tribute to a vast quantity of other people’s songs. Twist and Shout – the Top Notes via the Beatles – has long been a feature of his live sets. A glance at his gig statistics on Setlist.fm confirms his love for Jimmy Cliff as well as Patti Smith. Folk activist Pete Seeger has already been the subject of a previous Springsteen compendium, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006).
A striking feature of Only the Strong Survive, therefore, is that its 15 songs are not the cuts that Springsteen has been delivering with sweat-drenched abandon since the New Jersey club circuit. (There are live albums, bootlegs and YouTube for those.)
It’s a soul set without Soul Man, the Sam & Dave hit that Springsteen revisits regularly live, sometimes with Sam Moore himself guesting, although Moore features on two songs here, Soul Days and I Forgot to Be Your Lover, tracing a vivid songline back to the era. If this album’s November release date suggests it’s now open season on musical gift-giving, the mix of rarities (for Springsteen) with nailed-on tearjerkers (The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, which follows the Walker Brothers’ version) feels generous. To add to the comfort and joy, everything here gleams with brass and bonhomie.
When Springsteen and Aniello first started this project in downtime, they codenamed themselves the Night Shift. It was a natural segue from there into a version of the Commodores’ Nightshift, one of many tracks here that were themselves written looking backwards. Nightshift, released in 1985, celebrates soul greats Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, who both died the previous year. Vast swaths of Only the Strong Survive hymn old songs playing on the radio, wish they could have their time again with an ill-treated sweetheart. Springsteen is looking back on looking back; nostalgia, squared.
If there is a criticism to be made of this big-hearted wallow, it’s not only that the mood here is galvanising, rather than anything more subtle or bruised – witness the northern soul stomper Do I Love You (Indeed I Do), originally sung in 1965 by Frank Wilson – but that Springsteen is so lovingly loyal to his string-swept, sepia-tinted sources, rather than more artistically brave. There is no attempt to update, reinterpret or own any of this material as, say, the late Johnny Cash did on his series of records celebrating American music. You don’t want to say the k-word – karaoke. It would demean the skill and ardour of this persuasive set. But there could be a wider range of moods here.
For that, it helps to dig. On what is a big warm hug of a disc, two tracks stand out, not so much for Springsteen’s performances – rich, warm – but for their backstories. The final cut, Diana Ross & the Supremes’ Someday We’ll Be Together, looks forward to a time when two lovers might reunite. There’s a wry chuckle to be had here too. Although this song was credited to Ross and the Supremes, it was Ross’s first solo record and the track’s wistful longing for unity is rather ironic.
Motown lyricist Rodger Penzabene poured his heart out at his own partner’s infidelities into the words of I Wish It Would Rain, a Temptations track from 1967; he took his own life shortly after the song was released. I Wish It Would Rain is the shadow twin of the title track. On Only the Strong Survive, boys shouldn’t cry. On the Temptations cut, they do, and pray for showers to hide those tears. A little more rain could fall on this upbeat arrangement too.