The Boss showcases his R&B influences on impressive new album
Some of the most memorable moments of Bruce Springsteen’s concerts over the past half century (holy crap, does that make us all feel ancient, or what?) is when he veers away from his own catalog and dips into the American Rock ‘n’ Roll Songbook.
For example, check out this performance of Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” from Leipzig on July 7, 2013. As much fun as the performance of the song itself is the first two-and-a-half minutes or so when Bruce and the greatest bar band on the planet are working out the key and tempo.
Or this performance of Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” in Philadelphia on October 20, 2009. It’s a nearly nine-minute celebration that finds Springsteen grinning from ear to ear and the audience on its feet in joyous celebration. He enjoyed it so much, in fact, that it became a show closer for most of the rest of 2009, and was his finale in the 25th anniversary concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on October 29, 2009.
Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Album: Only The Strong Survive
Label: Columbia Records
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
It’s in this spirit that Springsteen has delivered Only The Strong Survive, his 21st studio album, a tour of R&B and soul music from the catalogs of Motown, Stax, Gamble and Huff and more. When Springsteen was interviewed by Howard Stern on Halloween, he said he left 40 songs on the floor when choosing the 15 for this record. The cover of this album says “Vol. 1” on it; Vol. 2 will undoubtedly be along in short order after Bruce sweeps the floor.
Of course, this album should come as no surprise to anyone who has paid close attention to Bruce’s music over the years. His R&B and soul roots run deep, and they’re often on display – from Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music” in many a setlist (particularly in 1988), the way “Mary’s Place” winks to Sam Cooke and Major Lance, how he integrated Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” into “10th Ave Freeze-Out” on the reunion tour. Even Ben E. King gets name-checked in “The Power of Prayer” on 2020’s Letter to You album.
Bruce has already received a ton of criticism for this record, along the lines of “he’s turning into Rod Stewart,” but there’s a difference between covering songs and embracing them. Stewart covered the Great American Songbook across five albums, plus 15 slices of soul music on 2009’s Soulbook. Not that those albums aren’t good listening, but just compare Rod’s version of “Higher and Higher” to Bruce’s. It’s the difference between covering a song and crawling into the guts of the song and making it your own.
VIDEO: Bruce Springsteen “Nightshift”
The best example of this on the new album is “Nightshift,” a 1985 hit for the post-Lionel Ritchie Commodores. This is one of Bruce’s best vocal performances – not just on this album, which shows him in remarkably fine voice, but ever. I’ve lost track of the musicians and music enthusiasts in my circle, many of them pointedly not Springsteen fans, who have listened to that track and marveled at the depth with which he embraces and expresses the lyrics. And just look at his face in the video for “Nightshift” when he sings of Jackie Wilson and references “Higher and Higher.” It’s like he’s relishing that joyous 2009 performance in Philly all over again.
The worst example is probably “Don’t Play That Song,” originally released by Ben E. King in 1962 and famously covered by Aretha Franklin, who took it to number one on the Billboard R&B chart for five weeks in 1970. Bruce leans in more toward Franklin than King on this one, and I like the video, which tells me there’ll be lots of horns and strings and backup singers on the upcoming tour. For my money, though, he never manages to one-up Aretha and make the song his own, despite a brief detour into spoken word (“I remember those summer nights down by the shore…”). I wonder if he considered doing a duet with Patti on this one, the way Sam Moore and Bekka Bramlett teamed up on Sam’s terrific 2006 album, Overnight Sensational.
Sam (of the legendary Sam & Dave, but you knew that already, didn’t you?) shows up on two songs: “Soul Days,” Dobie Gray’s terrific Carolina shag summer song, and William Bell’s “I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” which would segueway well with Bruce’s “Back in Your Arms,” released on the 1998 Tracks boxed set.
When the album’s track list was originally released, I was fascinated by two song choices: The Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain” and The Four Tops’ “7 Rooms of Gloom.” As a longtime fan of both groups, I wondered how Bruce would tackle these iconic Motown tunes. They’re both solid straightforward covers, but the latter really takes off in a way that suggests it will be absolutely terrific live – which, when all is said and done, is kind of what us Springsteen fans want to know as every new song and album is released.
VIDEO: Bruce Springsteen “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)”
There are several tracks here that could easily become joyous concert set pieces, most notably the first single, “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do).” It’s a no-brainer to imagine 20,000 fans rocking the roof of the arena collectively singing to Bruce: “Do I love you? Do I love you? Do I love you? Indeed I do!”
The Jerry Butler title track, too, with its theme of looking back to one’s first love affair and the singer getting advice from his mother invites everyone to scream along in unison: “Only the strong survive!” Upbeat and positive, it also takes on deep poignancy when you consider how close Springsteen is to his 97-year-old mother, Adele, suffering from Alzheimer’s, who might well have given him the same advice.
And just as fans are looking to “Ghosts” from Letter to You as a show opener, it’s easy to see “Someday We’ll Be Together” as a show closer. Don’t do it, Bruce: That’s Diana Ross’ shtick.
Remarkably, according to the tour stats assembled by setlist.fm, none of the 15 songs on Only the Strong Survive were ever performed by Springsteen in concert. That will no doubt change when his 2023 tour kicks off in Florida in February.