SPRINGSTEEN’S SWEET SOUL
Bruce folds his own story into music history on an LP of vintage soul covers
It’s been a decade of reminiscence and reflection for Bruce Springsteen. He’s revisited classic albums on tour, retold his life story on the page and Broadway stage, and written songs about late childhood friends. Even when he released 2020’s Letter to You, his first proper E Street Band record in years, he used some of his earliest Seventies songs as source material.
Only the Strong Survive, his new album of reverent soul and R&B covers, arrives in this same spirit of nostalgic recollection for the 73-yearold. The album’s first words: “I remember.” Most tunes are from the mid-to-late Sixties, the formative few years after the 15-year-old Springsteen received his first electric guitar, and started carving out his musical identity.
The record puts a fine point on an argument he’s always made about his influences: “If you played in a bar on the central New Jersey shore in the Sixties and Seventies,” he once said, “you played soul music.”
It’s a shame, then, that apart from a few horn players and a Sam Moore cameo, none of the soul-steeped musicians from Springsteen’s past are found on his R&B love letter. Only the Strong Survive is a product of backyard-studio sessions during lockdown, with longtime producer Ron Aniello playing all the basic backing tracks by himself. Adding to the album’s retro-soul pastiche are Aniello’s occasionally thin arrangements (see his take on Chuck Jackson’s
“Any Other Way”) that recall the forgotten latter-day LPs where soul greats like Sam & Dave and Percy Sledge released sterile rerecordings of their greatest hits.
But even if the arrangements occasionally feel static, Springsteen’s voice shines and sparkles. Here, he uses that voice to inhabit many roles: crate digger (Frankie Wilson’s “Do I Love You”), forgive-me repenter (William Bell’s “I Forgot to Be Your Lover”), elder memorializer (The Commodores’ “Nightshift”), blue-eyed interloper ( Jerry Butler’s title track), and canon redefiner (to this Jerseyite, Frankie
Valli is just as soul as Stax).
Then there’s the moment in the Aretha Franklin/Ben E. King classic “Don’t Play That Song” when Springsteen strays off-script: “I remember those summer nights down by the shore,” he ad-libs before the final chorus: “As the band played, with you back in my arms, and we moved across that floor.” It’s part James Brown showmanship, part boardwalk reverie, part camp; and if it sounds like something he once might have done onstage with one of his own songs, that’s his whole point. He’s finding a new way to fold his story into American music’s living history.