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Review: Bruce Springsteen Pays Heartfelt ‘Survival of the Strong’ Tribute

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Springsteen is redefining his sound on his new album, providing audiences with a more personal experience.

EJ Hersom / Ministry of Defense News

Bruce Springsteen plays harmonica and guitar during The Concert for Valor in Washington, DC on November 11, 2014. (Photo by EJ Hersom via Wikimedia Commons)

On Only the Strong Survive, one of music’s greatest re-imaginings presents a deftly executed — and sometimes overly restrained — set of soul covers, both classic and lesser-known. Bruce Springsteen recorded this album in his home studio while in isolation with his regular producer Ron Agnello.

On “Only the Strong Survive,” Springsteen offsets the glossy overproduction of the last few albums with passionate and intimate vocals. He sounds as majestic and smooth as ever, proving that at 73 he’s still a force to be reckoned with. Despite the toned-down sound of his E Street Band, Springsteen’s vocals remain powerful and commanding.

While the record can feel a bit unadventurous and contrived at times, there’s an obvious reverence and connection to each song that makes it hard to feel disappointed. However, some of the rockiest tracks are just begging for Springsteen and his band to loosen up and get a little sloppy. When compared to Tom Waits’ iconic version of Jersey Girl, none of these covers have the same comprehensive appeal that the original contains. However, it doesn’t seem like he was looking for such voracious remakes.

Frankly, Springsteen does little to make these songs stand out. Instead, he prefers a respectful and light-hearted approach to the music that made him who he is. A bit more refined than similar tribute projects of recent years — such as Bob Dylan’s Triplicate, a compilation of songs from Frank Sinatra and the Great American Songbook — the record marked a strange but welcome turn for Springsteen.

Stylistically, the song selection brings a refreshing level of variety. Ranging from downtempo ballads to bright funky love songs, he tries several sounds and songwriters with varying degrees of success. An early standout, “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” finds Springsteen at his most Frankie Valli-like. The weathered grit of his vocals is removed for a buttery smooth sound—all accompanied by a sharp horn section. It’s surprising to hear him sound so refined, but he wears it well.

The Commodores’ “Nightshift” is perhaps his band’s best rendition — mainly because it’s one of the few tracks where it sounds like he’s letting himself and his bandmates run away with the music. He achieves a similar effect on the funky-sounding “When She Was My Girl,” admirably breaking away from imitation and finding ways to bring his own sound.

On “7 Rooms of Gloom,” originally released in 1967 by the Four Tops, Springsteen essentially forgoes singing altogether and instead creates a manic, obsessive sermon. He makes devastating statements like “You took the dream I had for us and turned that dream to dust” and “Without your love, your love inside / This house is just a place to hide.” It feels like the most successful example of what this project could have been. Springsteen finds a truly fresh take on a song that’s over 50 years old, creating a modern sound while still hitting the notes of a classic sensibility. Refreshingly, it leaves the track sounding alive in his hands.

In truth, many of these songs are already reminiscent of Springsteen, both thematically and musically—there’s a reason he chose to present them as a collection of influences. Lyrics about dancing with long-lost lovers on the shore and pleas for messages for those in love with him are at home in his repertoire. It’s far from him putting any of his trademarks on them, but it still begs the question of whether this very accomplished and enjoyable record might have felt a bit more important and memorable in his catalog if he’d been more ambitious.

It’s hard to imagine returning to this record on a regular basis, but as a snapshot of Springsteen in his current era—and as a testament to his refusal to stop pushing himself into uncharted waters—it’s a welcome experiment.

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