Bruce Springsteen released his anticipated new album of soul and R&B covers on Friday, November 11. First revealed by Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner in mid-September and formally announced by Springsteen at the end of that same month, Only the Strong Survive is his 21st studio album. If you follow The Boss, you may have seen reviews to date have been mixed. While I feel some of the criticism is fair, overall, I think Springsteen has delivered an enjoyable album.
Only the Strong Survive comes two years after Letter to You (October 2020), and is Springsteen’s second all-covers collection since We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (April 2006). Springsteen made the album at his Thrill Hill Recording studio in New Jersey “in early lockdown during “off hours”, as reported by Pitchfork. Perhaps that explains in part why producer Ron Aniello played nearly all instruments (drums, bass, percussion, guitar, vibes, piano, organ, glockenspiel, keyboards, farfisa). Springsteen himself mostly provided lead vocals and also played some guitar.
The number of other contributors was limited. Most notable is the now 87-year-old Sam Moore, one half of legendary Stax duo Sam & Dave. Other listed contributors include backing vocalists Soozie Tyrell, Lisa Lowell, Michelle Moore, Curtis King Jr., Dennis Collins and Fonzi Thornton, as well as The E Street Horns and Rob Mathes who provided string arrangements. Notably absent were soul fan Steven Van Zandt, who came up with the great horn arrangement for Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, and other members of the E Street Band. Again, perhaps it’s a reflection of the circumstances, or Springsteen simply wanted to leave no doubt the album was a solo effort.
“I wanted to make an album where I just sang,” he stated. “And what better music to work with than the great American songbook of the Sixties and Seventies? I’ve taken my inspiration from Levi Stubbs, David Ruffin, Jimmy Ruffin, the Iceman Jerry Butler, Diana Ross, Dobie Gray, and Scott Walker, among many others. I’ve tried to do justice to them all—and to the fabulous writers of this glorious music.”
Time to get to some of the goodies. Let’s kick it off with Soul Days, written by Jonnie Barnett and recorded by Dobie Gray as the title track of his 2001 studio album – perhaps not the most obvious choice if Springsteen’s goal was to highlight ’60s and ’70s soul music. That said, I think it’s a great rendition. It’s also one of two tunes featuring Sam Moore on backing vocals. Just like with the other tracks on the album, Springsteen evidently did not aim to remake any of these songs – appropriate for an album that pays homage.
Another tune I think came out really well is Do I Love You (Indeed I Do). It was written by Motown producer Frank Wilson, who also recorded it as a single in 1965. But Berry Gordy felt lukewarm about Wilson’s singing. More importantly, he wanted his producers to focus on producing rather than becoming recording artists. None of the pressed copies of the single were formally released and apparently are now prized items among collectors. Yes, the strings on Springsteen’s cover are perhaps a bit lush, but the tune has that infectious Motown beat that wants you to be dancing in the street. I also think Springsteen’s raspy vocals work rather well. Of course, he does get a little help from a potent backing choir. Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) also became the album’s first single on September 29.
Turn Back the Hands of Time, co-written by Jack Daniels and Bonnie Thompson, was first released as a single in February 1970 and became the second major hit for blues and soul singer Tyrone Davis. Again, Springsteen does a nice job of delivering a faithful cover.
For the most part, Springsteen chose to cover tunes that aren’t known very widely, which I think was a smart choice. While his raspy vocals go well with the rock-oriented music he usually makes, the reality is his vocal range has limitations. One of the exceptions is I Wish It Would Rain, which became a no. 4 hit for The Temptations in 1967 on the Billboard Hot 100 and one of their numerous ’60s tunes to top the R&B chart. It was penned by Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield, Barrett Strong and Rodger Penzabene. Taking on the mighty Temptations is gutsy, but once again Springsteen does a commendable job. He even throws in some falsetto. The backing vocals are excellent as well.
The last track I’d like to call out is the second tune featuring Sam Moore on backing vocals: I Forgot to Be Your Lover. Co-written by William Bell and Booker T. Jones, Bell recorded and first released the beautiful soul ballad in late 1968. The tune reached no. 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at no. 10 on the Hot R&B Singles chart.
Only the Strong Survive appears on Columbia Records. It was engineered by Rob Lebret and executive-produced by long-time Springsteen collaborator Jon Landau. Following is a Spotify link to the album.
“My goal is for the modern audience to experience [the music’s] beauty and joy, just as I have since I first heard it,” Springsteen explained. “I hope you love listening to it as much as I loved making it.”
Throughout his entire career, Springsteen has included soul songs in his sets, so I feel there can be no doubt his proclaimed love for this music is genuine. Could some of his picks have been different? Sure. Is it odd he had Sam Moore as a guest and didn’t cover a Sam & Dave tune? Perhaps. Or that there weren’t any members of the E Street Band, especially since he will be touring with them next year? Not necessarily, given the album came together during COVID lockdown.
One important aspect is Springsteen picked songs that work well with his voice. Together with great backing vocals and musical arrangements that largely stay faithful to the original songs, Only the Strong Survive is a pleasant listening experience. Another question is how the album will be remembered in the context of Springsteen’s overall catalog. Time will tell.
Sources: Wikipedia; Pitchfork; Bruce Springsteen website; YouTube; Spotify