Only The Strong Survive

Bruce Springsteen

Columbia, 2022

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Look, I get it. The years start to add up and you start reminiscing more about the old days when everything felt new and your joints didn’t hurt every time it rains. You remember how much better music sounded when you were a teenager fighting for control of the radio in Dad’s cream-toned Thunderbird with the creaky door. You start singing those old songs in the shower, at the mirror, and in the car you’re driving now.

And if you’re Bruce Springsteen—who, at age 73, with dozens of mega-selling albums and tours and a book and even a Broadway show, can do whatever in the world he pleases creatively—you say what the hell: let’s cut a whole album of those songs.

My initial reaction to Only The Strong Survive—a passion project produced by Ron Aniello, who along with Springsteen played all of the instruments other than horns and strings—was less than enthusiastic. For an artist like Springsteen—one of the great songwriters of his generation—cutting a covers album of oldies is sweet, affectionate and nostalgic… and also lazy, self-indulgent and privileged. Why go through the sweat and tears of making original music when you can just pretend you’re 17 again and karaoke your way through some of your favorite songs from back in the day? (If it was good enough for Phil Collins…)

That’s where my attitude began with Only The Strong Survive. And then, track by track, minute by minute, one smiling head-shake after another, I fell under the sway of this album’s considerable charms.

Those charms are front and center for the kickoff one-two punch. Opening with a female background chorus chanting “I remember,” “Only The Strong Survive” allows Bruce to preach courage to his younger self, feeling like nothing so much as a musical rendition of one of his famous between-songs-in-concert stories. As the chorus swells, carrying strings, bass, guitars and drums with it, you’re swept up in it whether you like it or not. Then “Soul Days” offers a virtual topic sentence for the album with a rolling r&b rhythm, a sweet horn section and a lyric that’s a love letter to early classic soul artists from Wilson Pickett to Aretha Franklin to Sam & Dave; for the cherry on top Bruce brings in Sam Moore himself to sing harmony.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Track three is where Springsteen takes his biggest chance, tackling the Commodores gem “Night Shift,” a substantial hit that name-checks a long list of classic soul artists of the ’60s and early ’70s; he does a respectable job even if it does feel a little strange hearing him sing this familiar tune. Just when you’re feeling relieved he didn’t botch that one, the album’s clear highlight arrives. By the time Bruce hit the first driving, exuberant chorus of “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” I couldn’t help myself; I was grinning ear to ear. Every person on the planet should hope to find a partner in life who loves them as much as Bruce Springsteen loves this song.

With his romantic flag now flying high, Bruce moves next into the strings-and-horns driven, Orbison-esque “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.” It feels maybe a little predictable in that early-’60s love song way, but also offered a revelation that turned my perception of this album inside out for good. Sure, a song like this doesn’t feel as vital as a song like “Backstreets”—but “Backstreets” wouldn’t exist without it. The innocent longing of these early ’60s tunes is exactly what curdled and evolved into the expansive, wounded romanticism of Bruce in his mid-’70s prime. Without these songs, there is no Wild, Innocent & E Street Shuffle or Born To Run; the former is an essential precursor ingredient to the latter.

With that recognition, Only The Strong Survive becomes less an exercise in self-indulgent nostalgia than a poignant tribute to the foundations of songwriter Springsteen’s musical world.

The highlights from there are several. “Turn Back The Hands Of Time” offers a wink to the calendar while riding a straight-up Motown arrangement rich with horn, strings, and female background vocal chorus. It works as well as it does because Bruce holds nothing back; he sings it like it’s “Badlands,” and how do you say no to that much raw enthusiasm? The equally ebullient “Hey, Western Union Man” passes out anachronisms like party favors (Telegram? Can’t you just text her?) while having a blast. “Any Other Way” delivers a swinging breakup song full of sass, and then at the end he closes things out with one more familiar one, bringing the romanticism back full force for a run at “Someday We’ll Be Together.”

Among the best decisions Springsteen makes here is that he doesn’t pick the obvious, familiar songs, which was one of the flaws of Phil Collins’ Going Back for me; hearing songs you know by heart recreated note for note often feels pointless. By contrast, Springsteen chooses mostly more obscure tunes, deep cuts that both demonstrate his genuine passion for this era and style of music, and offer the listener an education as well as entertainment.

While this album does nothing to further Bruce Springsteen’s career arc as a songwriter, it does fill in essential details that informed the early part of that arc. In the end the value I took from Only The Strong Survive wasn’t so much from the recordings themselves, but from what it says about Bruce that he wanted to make them. He knows where he came from musically and not only does he respect those roots—he still loves to sing those songs.

Rating: B

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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