Review: Only the Strong Survive: The Boss turns soul provider

They say wine gets better with age. But the same generally does not apply to music artists. Indeed, as legendary performers grow older and get close to elderly, talk of new work from them tends to be greeted with as much joyful anticipation as with fearful apprehension. Joyful anticipation because well, they are legends and you expect something amazing from them. Fearful apprehension because you wonder if they are still capable of delivering magic and might end up delivering something half-baked – remember the amazing Sinatra and those less than amazing Duets albums in his late seventies, or the labored efforts of Aerosmith and Phil Collins as they got on the wrong side of the fisties? “The older they get, the better they used to be,” one music critic is believed to have said, his words tinged with regret.

Fortunately, in the case of Brice Springtseen, the man so many of us know as The Boss (evidently because he was in charge of the accounts of his band), you can cancel out the apprehension. His latest album, Only the Strong Survive, proves that while he may be 73, he remains in excellent vocal form.

It is the voice of Springsteen that is likely to decide how much you like the album, though. That is because unlike his past endeavors which were mainly in the domain of folk, country and rock, The Boss this time gets into the soul zone. Those who have followed his career will know that Springsteen and his band often perform their versions of soul classics in their live shows. However, he has steered clear of them in his studio albums. Until Only the Strong Survive. The album is a collection of fifteen soul classics that Springtseen says come from the “Great American songbook of the sixties and seventies.” Unlike some artistes who like to reinvent classics, Springsteen has let them be, adding mainly his voice to the numbers that others had sung in the past and not messing with their essential structure.

Which is why we say that it is his voice that will determine if you like Only the Strong Survive. Many identify his trademark rasping voice rock and folk music, driving energetically through quick paced numbers, and wryly singing about loss and longing in the slower ones, and they are unlikely to be very comfortable with seeing him in Four Tops’ “Seven Rooms of Gloom ” or The Temptations’ “I Wish it Would Rain.” It is not as if Springsteen sings them badly, it is just that those who have heard the original numbers might find his voice out of place in a similar arrangement, with gospel backups.

Springsteen fans, however, are just going to love the album, because it sees him really extend his vocal chords after almost a decade. And it also reveals just how much variety the man has – he varies his pitch and tone immaculately in Jimmy Ruffins’ “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted.” It does not always work – his handling of the sombre title track (a Jerry Buttler classic on a boy being consoled by his mother after being dumped) seems a little too restrained and he seems to fade rather than shine in the slower portions of Franki Valli’s “The Sunshine Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More,” although he hits the notes perfectly when the tempo picks up.

But the album really hits another level when Springsteen gets into near-rock mode. His joyous “come on” kicks off a brilliant, energetic take on Frank Wilson’s classic “Do I love you (Indeed I do)”, he moves in perfect time to the swinging violins in “Hey, Western Union Man,” another Jimmy Butler classic, and you will feel your eyes moisten when he wonders “What becomes of the broken-hearted,” and pays tribute to Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson in the tastefully restrained “Night Shift.” 87-year-old Sam Cooke joins him in the sublimely slow paced “I forgot to be your lover” and the slightly low key “Soul Days,” showing that he too is in fine fettle, voice wise.

It would have been nice to see Springsteen experiment a bit with tunes and arrangements, something he is known for doing during his live shows, but even while sticking to the basics, he delivers an album that his fans will love, although Soul purists might sniff and hint that they prefer the originals. This album is a must-have for Springsteen fans, and a good option for those who listen to soul classics with an open mind. For those who know not Springsteen (welcome to Planet Rock, aliens), perhaps something like Born in the USA and Tunnel of Love would be better.

Only the Strong Survive is a little like driving down a familiar road in a different car, being driven by an old friend. The road is the same, but the trip seems a little different. And the trip is not over yet – there is a tiny “Covers. Volume One” written next to the title of this album. He may be 73, but the Boss still has spring in his soul.

Only The Strong Survive
By: Bruce Springsteen
(Available on Apple Music, Spotify and other major music services)

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