There comes a point when many rock stars of a certain vintage, from Rod Stewart to Paul McCartney to Bob Dylan, drift into recording albums of standards. Their motivation sometimes seems less rooted in the music than in getting to wear a rakishly loosened necktie in publicity photos (looking at you, Rod). In fact, what’s often missing from these albums is any sense of connection to the songs themselves. By contrast, there’s Only the Strong Survive, Bruce Springsteen’s new collection of soul songs.
It’s easy to be skeptical: Here comes the rock ’n‘ roll avatar of the working class, wrapping himself in nostalgia for the music of his, er, glory days, blah blah blah. Yet the 15 songs on Only the Strong Survive are akin to getting a glimpse inside Springsteen’s process. In many cases, these sound like songs he studied, took apart and examined closely to see what made them work. There are echoes of many of them in his own music, which often contains a soul-like fervor that he has always delivered with the conviction of a true believer.
Maybe that’s why he totally owns the songs on Only the Strong Survive. This is no mawkish tribute album, nor some milquetoast paean to the past—Springsteen sings here with self-assured power. He comes at these songs with an easy familiarity that tells you he didn’t need to spend a lot of time learning them, because he had long since absorbed them into his very bones. Also, the guy can flat-out sing, which is something he doesn’t get enough credit for. Surely that’s because he injects so much of his own work with that wonderful stadium-rattling bombast, when he’s not murmuring stories of harrowing desperation. This time, freed of the weight of, well, being Bruce Springsteen, he can just let loose.
The one real knock against anything on Only the Strong Survive is that the definitive versions of most of these songs are so solid that even he can’t find much to improve upon. Not that he tinkers much: the musical arrangements aren’t far from the original versions. No matter: Springsteen sounds like he’s having a blast, even—or maybe especially—on the downhearted numbers, like “7 Rooms of Gloom,” which he turns into a rollicking celebration of heartache. The feeling of fun is contagious. He talk-sings the opening of the title track like he’s imparting his own mama’s wisdom, and Springsteen and Sam Moore (of the legendary soul duo Sam & Dave) lock in so tightly you’d think they’d been singing together for decades on “Soul Days” and “I Forgot to Be Your Lover.”
The ace band, which includes the E Street Horns and longtime collaborator Soozie Tyrell on backing vocals, stays right with Springsteen without crowding him, and the robust arrangement of strings, backing vocals and a nimble bassline on “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” make it impossible to sit still. While most of the songs on Only the Strong Survive come from the ’60s and ’70s, “Nightshift” is an outlier from 1985. It’s an interesting choice: By then, Springsteen was a year out from Born in the U.S.A. and at his absolute height. Digging into the Commodores’ homage to Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson suggests that Springsteen never lost touch with the style of music that he had found so uplifting through the years. By giving new life to the songs on Only the Strong Survive, he’s returning the favor.
Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013, and writing about music and pop culture for longer than he cares to admit. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.
Listen to a 1978 Springsteen performance from the Paste archives below.