Bear with me, but I’m going to start a review of Bruce Springsteen’s Only the Strong Survive by writing about The Band’s “The Last Waltz.”
After the guest-filled 1976 “Last Waltz” concert, The Band recorded two more songs in the studio, “The Weight” with The Staple Singers, and “Evangeline” with Emmylou Harris. The Band’s Robbie Robertson once explained that “it’s like all of these artists (in the concert) represented an element of popular music in their own right, like Muddy Waters represented blues, Neil Diamond represented Tin Pan Alley, and when we were all said and done, there were a couple of influences on our background that we had missed. We hadn’t got to point out gospel music and we hadn’t got to point out country music. So that’s how we came to the conclusion of doing (those two songs).”
Soul music is in Bruce Springsteen’s DNA. If you’re lucky enough to have been at a concert where he has performed “Sweet Soul Music” or “634-5789,” you know that. Even if haven’t, you’ve probably figured it out anyway, by the way he sings some of his own songs, such as “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out” and “Mary’s Place” (or, for that matter, the largely forgotten Human Touch song “Soul Driver”). And so, on Only the Strong Survive (which will be released on Nov. 11), he takes a deep dive — as he did on 2006’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions — into a genre that means the world to him.
It’s telling that after the title track (was there ever a more Springsteenesque phrase than “Only the strong survive”?) kicks off the album, the second and third songs, “Soul Days” and “Nightshift,” are tributes to soul music itself. “Nightshift,” already released as a single, lauds Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson (who both died shortly before The Commodores had a big hit with it in 1985). And “Soul Days” is a nostalgic paean to the singer’s “first love” (i.e., soul music) and “those sweet summer soul days.”
At the end of the song, Springsteen and guest backing vocalist Sam Moore — the Sam & Dave singer who was one of Springsteen’s biggest influences — engage in a little call-and-response.
Springsteen: I wanna hear some Wilson Pickett. And some Joe Tex! I wanna hear some Sam & Dave. Hey, Sam, I wanna hear some Aretha.
Moore: I wanna hear some Ray Charles.
Springsteen: And some soulful Sam Cooke now … I wanna hear some Arthur Conley.
Moore: Well, what about Edwin Starr?
Springsteen: (laughs) Oh, yeah!
“Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” (also previously released as a single, and embedded below) is the most feverish song on the album, while “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” boasts its most glorious production: a Phil Spector-style wall of sound. Spector was a big influence on Springsteen’s Born to Run album, of course. I listen to Springsteen’s “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” and I imagine that’s what the song would sound like if The Righteous Brothers were singing it and Spector was producing, in the mid-’60s. It is amazing.
Which brings us to the album’s production: Springsteen and Ron Aniello co-produced, and do a great job of re-creating the vintage sounds of Motown, Stax and less celebrated record labels. Aniello also plays all the drums and bass himself, plus most of the guitar and keyboards; Springsteen contributes on guitar and keyboards as well. On top of the basic instrumentation are a horn section (trumpeters Curt Ramm and Barry Danielian, trombonist Clark Gayton and saxophonists Bill Holloman, Ed Manion and Tom Timko), backing vocalists (Soozie Tyrell, Lisa Lowell, Michelle Moore, Curtis King Jr., Fonzi Thornton and Dennis Collins), a 16-piece string section, and extra percussion by Aniello.
No matter how intricate and busy the arrangements get — and, really, you could listen to songs such as “Turn Back the Hands of Time” and “When She Was My Girl” many, many times and still hear new things each time — Springsteen’s raw voice soars above it all.
Moore is featured on one song besides “Soul Days”: “I Forgot to Be Your Lover.” It’s great to hear the two men’s aching voices, merged together, on lines that Springsteen could have written himself, catching up with one of his young characters, now older and wiser:
I’ve been workin’ for you, doin’ all I can
Oh, I forgot to be your lover
And I’m sorry
But I’ll make it up to you somehow
When I first heard that Springsteen was doing a soul covers album, I assumed he would include some of the songs that he’s covered in concert in the past. He didn’t. He’s never performed live versions of any of these 15 songs.
Some, I knew previously (“Someday We’ll Be Together,” “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” “I Wish It Would Rain”). Others, frankly, are new to me (“Hey, Western Union Man,” “Any Other Way,” the breathtakingly melodramatic “7 Rooms of Gloom”). Needless to say, it’s a good thing that Springsteen will be introducing this genre to fans who may have little previous exposure to it, all over the world.
Only the Strong Survive grows on me with each listen, as most Springsteen albums have. Would I have preferred a collection of new, original songs? Sure, I can’t deny that. But Only the Strong Survive is still quite enjoyable in its own right: Not quite a revelation, perhaps, but a journey through the past that Springsteen had to take, executed with great musical precision and undeniable vocal passion. (And, interestingly, it’s a journey that he probably couldn’t have taken when he was younger: He needed the gravity of age to do these songs justice).
Like those two “Last Waltz” songs, Only the Strong Survive helps complete the picture.
Here is the album’s track listing, along with the original artists (click here to hear the original or, at least, an earlier version of each song).
“Only the Strong Survive,” Jerry Butler
“Soul Days” (featuring Sam Moore), Dobie Gray
“Nightshift,” The Commodores
“Do I Love You (Indeed I Do),” Frank Wilson
“The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” The Walker Brothers
“Turn Back the Hands of Time,” Tyrone Davis
“When She Was My Girl,” The Four Tops
“Hey, Western Union Man,” Jerry Butler
“I Wish It Would Rain,” The Temptations
“Don’t Play That Song,” Ben E. King (also recorded by Aretha Franklin)
“Any Other Way,” Jackie Shane
“I Forgot to Be Your Lover” (featuring Sam Moore), William Bell
“7 Rooms of Gloom,” The Four Tops
“What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” Jimmy Ruffin
“Someday We’ll Be Together,” Diana Ross & the Supremes
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