First Impressions: Only the Strong Survive by Bruce Springsteen

We first met in a CD store many moons ago, and our shared love for music soon formed the foundation for something more—we recently celebrated 31 years of marriage and 32 years of living together. So, rather than me review the new Bruce album, a soul-covers affair, I thought it best to hand the pen to my wife, Diane Wilkes, who knows the ins and outs of old-school R&B and soul far better than me.

*******************

“There was Frankie Lyman, Bobby Fuller, Mitch Ryder
(They were rockin’)
Jackie Wilson-Shangra-Las-Young Rascals
(They were rockin’)
Spotlight on Martha Reeves
Let's don't forget James Brown
Rockin' in the U.S.A., hey!” 
—John Mellencamp

I could write a whole lot on this subject, but my loquaciousness is checked by my husband’s blog length limitations.

Once upon a time, not that long ago, I grew up in the age of AM rock and roll radio, and it was a veritable and integrated Garden of Eden. My hearing was seduced by a wild riot of variety, from the Beatles and the Stones and the Byrds and the Who to the Supremes, the Temptations, the Tops, the Goddess Aretha Franklin, and Sly and the Family Stone. 

But FM rock radio, a place I didn’t visit nearly as often or as singularly as the Springsteen fanbase, was more into the white flowers, and only the white flowers. I like some of those flowers quite a lot, but I could never be satisfied with such a limited enclosure.

Ironically, the segregated space of FM radio’s adherents started to delude themselves, based on their limited worldview, that soul music wasn’t rock and roll. This wasn’t intentional racism on their part—in fact, if you want to understand systemic racism, it’s a perfect microcosm with which to see it clearly. (The irony of this is that rock and roll is not just an American idiom, it’s roots are based largely in blues and gospel and folk and country, as well as a big contribution from the very Black Chuck Berry.)

What does all that have to do with a review of the new Springsteen album? Everything.

Because when it comes to music, we like what we like and we like what is familiar to us. I know I’m relatively old, but I was still shocked to read so many Bruce fans say they were unfamiliar with the majority of songs on Only the Strong Survive. I was unfamiliar with exactly two, and most of the others are embedded so deeply in my musical DNA that they are the materia of my American songbook—much more so than The Seeger Sessions, which I think this album (to some extent) bears comparison.

If soul music isn’t familiar and/or beloved, this album is unlikely to be the realization of a fantasy for you, as it is for me. I’ve been wanting Bruce to do a soul album for a long time. I feel this LP was a personal gift from him to me.

It’s rude to criticize a personal gift. And yet.

If anyone else were to have the sheer impudence, the temerity to cover the Four Tops (with lead vocals by the incomparable Levi Stubbs), Jerry Butler, and the Temptations (with the equally incomparable David Ruffin), Aretha or Ben E. King, I’d strongly suggest, to paraphrase Arthur Alexander, s/he’d better move on. On the other hand, I have a reservoir of love for Bruce Springsteen’s vocals; they’ve been as much a part of my musical DNA almost as long as Smokey’s and Aretha’s. As I’ve listened and re-listened to the new album, I find Bruce’s almost word-for-word renditions reverential. Maybe too reverential. If I didn’t love Bruce’s voice and if it didn’t have the residual emotional resonance it does, I might not love the album as much as I do.

Additionally, I love that he’s introducing the music I revere to a new audience. Perhaps someone (or several someones) will do a deeper dive and check out the whole Wish It Would Rain Temptations’ album, David Ruffin’s last turn with the group and a masterpiece. Before Bruce’s track “Iceman” (from Tracks) that was Jerry Butler’s moniker, so named because of Butler’s suave, smooth delivery. Albums like The Iceman Cometh and Ice on Ice still deliver the goods. Or the Four Tops Greatest Hits, where every song is a stone classic. Or…you get the picture.

There’s a wealth of great music out there, and if Bruce makes the introduction to a few of his fans, it’s a boon to mankind. Bruce is paying long past due tribute to the music that in part formed and informed him, both live and in his songwriting. 

I’m disposed to like this album, and I do. A lot. But.

Those videos do this album no favors. The stench of the lounge, the artificiality of the visuals. I say avoid them and try to forget them if you’ve seen them.

The first notes of the lead and title track, “Only the Strong Survive,” sound so much like the original, and, indeed, the entire album shows a reverence to the originals that works more in theory than practice. Because these songs do exist already in all their brilliant perfection, any cover should offer more than slavish imitation. On “Soul Days” (featuring Sam Moore) and “Don’t Play That Song,” Bruce vamps a bit and it makes the songs infinitely more special.

But for the most part, the reverential covers don’t provide revelations. And there are times when I feel Bruce really falls short of the originals. Listen to the way David Ruffin sings the word “desperately” on “I Wish it Would Rain.” You can’t help but feel his desperation. I do not feel Bruce’s. And I can’t help think, every time I hear Bruce sing “the big-legged girl is gone,” that, unlike Levi Stubbs, he never used the term before singing “When She Was My Girl.”

Most songs are from the 1960s and ‘70s, but there are two exceptions. One is “Nightshift,” from 1985, and I can’t help but see the thematic parallels to Letter to You’s “Ghosts” and “One Minute You’re Here.” Bruce really recognizes spirits, and this album is filled with them.

Another standout number is “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” (a hit for the Walker Brothers but first cut by the Four Seasons, two blue eyed soul groups back to back). Bruce’s vocals (great on the whole album, by the way) may not be as legendary as either Scott Walker’s or Frankie Valli’s, but he can stand in the same room with either of them on this track. Bruce’s cover of William Bell’s “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” is exquisite, giving me the same feel as his own “Back in Your Arms” from Tracks. Positively heart-melting.

I think I prefer the lesser known songs simply because they aren’t ringing with so many loud echoes of the consummate originals.

I also think that the album production reflects that we’re still living in pandemic times and gathering the E Street band for this might not have been tenable—I know a lot of fans would have preferred that scenario, and I would have also. Other fans would have liked original music. But we just got an album of original music with the E Street Band, less than a year ago. This was an unexpected extra and should be received that way, especially when Apple Music/Spotify and/or YouTube allow you to listen to it without purchasing it. 

If the specific songs are unfamiliar and the style of music is not one you like, this probably will not be your cup of tea and that’s okay. I felt the same about The Seeger Sessions, and even though I went to a number of shows, the album never grew on me. There’s a case when I admired the intent—Bruce was bringing attention to an important kind and period of American music. But the sound (and the fact that they weren’t Bruce’s lyrics) wasn’t for me, unlike this album, which was practically customized for my tastes. I have already played it about 100 times more than I ever played The Seeger Sessions.

So now you know if you’re likely to enjoy this album or not. Enjoy or don’t. I do. I can even countenance the videos now. I love Bruce, I love his voice, and I love my present.

The track list:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s