Shortly after releasing his 20th album ‘Letter To You’ in 2020, Bruce Springsteen headed back into the studio. It was mid-COVID lockdown, and for the first time since ‘We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions’, his 2006 homage to Pete Seeger, The Boss was inspired to record songs he hadn’t written. Springsteen, producer Ron Aniello and engineer Rob Lebret – who christened themselves “The Night Shift” due to their unsociable working hours – got to work recording a compilation of cover songs, but they ultimately ended up tossing out the first draft. On their second try, however, Springsteen found a fertile theme that he wanted to explore.
“I’d spent my working life with my voice at the service of my songs, confined by my arrangements, by my melodies, by compositions, and by my constructions,” Springsteen said of the epiphany that led to ‘Only The Strong Survive’. “My voice always came second, third or fourth to those elements.”
Wanting to “challenge” himself and armed with the fresh, albeit somewhat knowing, revelation that “my voice is badass”, Springsteen and the rest of The Night Shift set about putting their own spin on a collection of American soul music classics, adding backing vocals, E Street Horns and full arrangements to “some of the most beautiful vocal music ever written and recorded”. The sessions resulted in a collection of 15 of the “most beautiful songs in the American pop sound book” written by singers and songwriters who, in Springsteen’s opinion, “are still underrated”.
On the title track Springsteen gives Jerry Butler’s original a raspier, Americana spin that still embraces the soulful vibrato and lump-in-throat delivery of the words: “Now there’s a whole lot of girls just looking for a good man like you / You ain’t never gonna meet ‘em if you give up now and say your whole life is through”.
On ‘Soul Days’, Springsteen taps up soul singer Sam Moore to lend his voice and harmonies to their cover of Jonnie Barnett’s story of falling in love with soul music. The track feels like a perfect fit on this album: as well as its overarching theme, its lyricism about daily American life, such as romanticising cruising down back roads and throwing on a pair of old blue jeans, seems like something The Boss could’ve written himself.
Springsteen’s version of the Commodores’ 1985 Motown hit ‘Nightshift’, which originally paid tribute to soul music greats Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, sees each word still ringing true: “Gonna miss your sweet voice / That soulful noise on the nightshift / We all remember you, your song is coming through”. These lyrics almost serve as an explanation for why Springsteen decided to put together this compilation in the first place.
Springsteen’s vocal prowess certainly shines through on the heartbreaking ‘What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted’, but the original thread that made Jimmy Ruffin’s forlorn 1966 hit so affecting is still present. The album then ends on a high note with a take on Diana Ross and The Supremes’ optimistic ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’, keeping with the album’s overall theme and that timeless Motown magic of making heartbreak and yearning feel celebratory.
Creating a covers album can be a daunting prospect, as people tend to favour the original over the remake. But with ‘Only The Strong Survive’, Springsteen resurrects these classics as a means of celebration, pointing back to some of the strongest songwriters and vocalists of all time with 15 huge and heartfelt tributes, as opposed to just churning out shallow reimaginings. Not only does it shine a light on what inspires one of the greatest living American songwriters, it also works to preserve the greats of the past and ensures that the best music and stories continue to survive.
Release date: November 11
Record label: Columbia Records