Bruce Springsteen – ‘Only the Strong Survive’ Album Review

Photo Credit: Danny Clinch

At the outset, a major artist doing a studio album comprised entirely of songs made popular by other artists may seem like a lazy way to stay in the public eye and/or take care of one contractually-obligated release. However, it’s probably closer to being a rite of passage, as Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and three out of four ex-Beatles have all released cover albums. Now, Bruce Springsteen joins that club with his new album Only the Strong Survive, a record comprised mainly of R&B songs from the ’60s through the ’80s. The results are heartfelt but not entirely fulfilling.

If nothing else, Springsteen can be given credit for not making many too many predictable selections in picking out the material. Sure, the Temptations and the Four Tops are represented, but other seemingly obvious choices such as Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robison are ignored in favor of comparatively more obscure R&B artists such as Jerry Butler, William Bell, and Frank Wilson. Marvin Gaye is only present as the subject of the first single “Night Shift,” itself a fairly surprising choice, being not only from the ’80s but also originally the sole hit for the Commodores after Lionel Richie left the group.

That slow song proves a decent enough match for Springsteen’s vocal style (which by now should be familiar to just about everyone). Still, unfortunately, that’s far from the case with every song: the Boss’ gruff and raw voice simply clashes with the way that these songs were initially intended to be performed, and as a result, quite a few songs range from marginally grating to utterly unlistenable. The record’s one venture outside of R&B, “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” a song recorded by countless artists (including the Walker Brothers, Neil Diamond, and Springsteen’s fellow Jersey boy Frankie Valli) proves to be the unexpected highlight.

Springsteen closes out the album with probably the three best-known songs among the bunch, the Four Tops’ “7 Rooms of Gloom,” Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” and Diana Ross & the Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together.” The last of those, lyrically at least, is as poignant a message for these divided times as it was when it was a hit in 1969, and while Springsteen’s intentions are clearly well-placed, his imbalance with the source material continues to be a problem. Springsteen has always had some success with cover songs as radio hits, including Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl,” Edwin Starr’s “War” and Mitch Ryder’s medley of “Devil with the Blue Dress On” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.” But these were all live recordings, fueled by both the energy of a concert crowd and that sense of spontaneity. Even within the confines of the recording studio, Springsteen could have applied a bit more of the underlying raw energy which defines a lot of his original work to at least a few of these songs.

Instead, most of the slick, tight production and arrangements here ultimately end up clashing with Springsteen’s vocal style. Much as we’d like to avoid it, listening to some of these tracks it becomes hard not to think of the dreaded “K” word – “karaoke.” Springsteen is currently just months away from his half-century mark as a recording artist, and he’s certainly earned the right to create something like this album which is mainly for his own satisfaction. His fans, the general public, and probably rock history will ultimately view Only the Strong Survive as an interesting side trip, nothing more.

Written by: Richard John Cummins

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