Review: Bruce Springsteen pays soulful tribute on ‘Only the Strong Survive’

Springsteen redefines his sound on his new album, providing the audience with a more personal experience.


EJ Hersom / DoD News

Bruce Springsteen plays harmonica and guitar during his set for The Concert for Valor in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 11, 2014. (Photo by EJ Hersom via Wikimedia Commons)

Holden Lay, Staff Writer

On “Only the Strong Survive,” one of music’s best re-interpreters delivers a skillfully executed — and at times a bit too reserved — set of soul covers, both classic and lesser known. Bruce Springsteen recorded this album in his home studio during lockdown with his usual producer Ron Aniello. 

On “Only the Strong Survive,” Springsteen makes up for the glossy overproduced sound of his last few albums with passionate and intimate vocal performances. He sounds as stately and smooth as ever, proving that at 73, he is still a force to be reckoned with. Despite a stripped-down sound from his E Street Band, Springsteen’s vocals remain powerful and commanding.

While the record can feel a bit unadventurous and artificial at times, there’s an evident reverence and connection with each song that makes it hard to feel disappointed. Still, some of the more rocking tracks are just begging for Springsteen and his band to let loose and get a little sloppy. When held up against the likes of the iconic take on Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl,” none of these covers possess the same total reclamation that the original contains. However, it doesn’t feel like he was seeking such voracious reworkings.

Frankly, Springsteen does little to make these songs distinctive. Instead, he prioritizes respectful and lighthearted takes on music that has made him who he is. A bit more refined than similar tribute projects of recent years — such as Bob Dylan’s “Triplicate” album composed of songs from Frank Sinatra and the Great American Songbook — this record is a surprising, but joyful turn for Springsteen.

Stylistically, the choice of songs brings a refreshing level of variety. Ranging from downtempo ballads to snappy, funky love songs, he tries several sounds and songwriters, which have varying degrees of success. The early standout, “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” finds Springsteen at his most Frankie Valli-ish. The weathered grit of his vocals are stripped away for a buttery smooth sound — all accompanied by a punchy horn section. It’s bizarre to hear him sound so polished, but he wears it well. 

The Commodores’ “Nightshift” is possibly the best performance by his band — mainly because it’s one of the few tracks in which it feels like he lets himself and his accompanists run away with the music. He achieves a similar effect on the funk-like “When She Was My Girl,” delightfully veering further from imitation and more toward finding ways to bring his own sound to the table.

On “7 Rooms of Gloom,” initially released in 1967 by the Four Tops, Springsteen essentially drops singing altogether, and instead creates a manic, possessed sermon. He delivers crushing declarations such as “You took the dream I had for us, and turned that dream into dust” and “Without your love, your love inside / This house is just a place to hide.” It feels like the most successful example of what this project could’ve been. Springsteen finds a genuinely new take on a song that’s over 50 years old, creating a modern sound while continuing to hit the notes of classic sensibility. Refreshingly, it leaves the track sounding like it’s alive in his hands.

In fairness, many of these songs already feel quite Springsteen-like, both thematically and musically — there’s a reason he’s chosen to present them seemingly as a set of influences. Lyrics about dancing with long-lost sweethearts by the shore and begging to get messages to forlorn lovers feel right at home in his repertoire. Far from suggesting that he pigeonholed any sort of his trademarks onto them, it still begs the question of whether this very accomplished and enjoyable record could’ve felt a little more important and memorable in his catalog if it had been more ambitious.

It’s hard to imagine returning to this record on the regular, but as a snapshot of Springsteen in his current era — and a testament to his refusal to stop pushing himself into uncharted waters — it’s a welcome experiment.

Contact Holden Lay at [email protected].