They say wine gets better with age. But that’s not true for music artists in general. As legendary performers grow older and approach elderly people, the conversation about new work is usually greeted with as much anticipation as anxious apprehension. Anticipation, because well, they are legends and something amazing is expected of them. Anxious apprehension because you wonder if they’re still capable of delivering magic and might end up delivering something immature – remember the amazing Sinatra and those less than amazing Duets albums in his late seventies or the arduous efforts by Aerosmith and Phil Collins when they were on the wrong side of the fifties? “The older they get, the better they used to be,” a music critic reportedly said, his words laced with regret.
Luckily in the case of Brice Springtseen, the man so many of us know as The Boss (obviously because he was in charge of his band’s accounts), you can allay the fear. His latest album Only the Strong Survive proves he’s still in excellent vocal form at 73.
However, it’s Springsteen’s voice that probably decides how much you enjoy the album. Because in contrast to his previous efforts, which were mainly in the area of folk, country and rock, this time The Boss is going into the soul zone. Those who’ve followed his career will know that Springsteen and his band often perform their versions of soul classics in their live shows. However, he has stayed away from them in his studio albums. Until only the strong survive. The album is a collection of fifteen soul classics that, according to Springtseen, come from “the great American songbook of the sixties and seventies”. Unlike some artists who like to reinvent classics, Springsteen has dropped them, mostly adding his voice to numbers others had sung in the past rather than tampering with their basic structure.
That’s why we say it’s his voice that decides if you like Only the Strong Survive. Many identify his signature raspy voice as rock and folk music, striding energetically through fast numbers and singing wryly of loss and longing in the slower ones, and you probably won’t feel very comfortable singing him in Four Tops’ Seven Rooms of Gloom see” or “I Wish it would Rain” by The Temptations. It’s not that Springsteen sings them badly, it’s 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 will love the album though, as it really gets him expanding his vocal cords after nearly a decade. And it also shows how varied the man is – in Jimmy Ruffins’ “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” he immaculately varies his pitch and tone. It doesn’t always work — his handling of the sombre title track (a Jerry Buttler classic about a boy comforted by his mother after he’s been abandoned) seems a bit too reserved, and it seems to fade into the slower sections of Franki Valli than to shine “The Sunshine Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More,” though he hits the notes perfectly when the tempo picks up.
But the album really takes it to another level when Springsteen goes into fast-rock mode. His joyful “Come on” opens a brilliant, energetic version of Frank Wilson’s classic “Do I love you (Indeed I do)”, moving in perfect time to the swinging violins in “Hey, Western Union Man”, another Jimmy Butler’s classic, and you’ll feel your eyes water as he wonders “what becomes of the broken hearts,” and pays tribute to Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson in the tastefully understated “Night Shift.” He is joined by 87-year-old Sam Cooke on the soaringly slow “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” and the slightly understated “Soul Days,” proving he’s in fine vocal shape, too.
It would have been nice if Springsteen experimented a bit with melodies and arrangements, which he’s known for at his live shows, but even if he sticks to the basics, he delivers an album that fans will love, albeit soul -Purists might snoop and suggest they prefer the originals. This album is a must-read for Springsteen fans and a good option for those who enjoy an open-minded listen to classic soul music. For those unfamiliar with 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 bit like driving down a familiar road in a different car when being driven by an old friend. The road is the same but the journey seems a little different. And the journey isn’t over yet – there’s a tiny ‘cover. 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)