Bruce Springsteen: Only the Strong Survive album review - finds the Boss in soulful mood

 (Danny Clinch)
(Danny Clinch)

The cover versions normally come out at three stages in a musician’s career: at the very start, when they might not have enough originals to fill a 45-minute live set, and towards the very end, when there’s nothing left to prove and they just want to sing the songs they’ve always loved. (And thirdly, of course, at the moment they misguidedly decide that the world needs yet another Christmas album.)

At 73, Bruce Springsteen is simply feeling nostalgic. In recent years he’s also written his autobiography and done a one-man storytelling Broadway show. His last album, Letter to You, saw him reuniting with his E Street Band and including three songs he had written the year before he released his debut. So why not also have a bit of fun with the Sixties soul and R&B songs he knows from his teens?

The first voices on the title track, which opens the album, are a female backing trio repeating: “I remember.” Two songs are relatively new but sum up the spirit of the project: Nightshift, by The Commodores in 1985, is a fond tribute to Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, who had died the year before; and Soul Days, first recorded by Dobie Wilson in 2000, remembers that beautiful sound of youth. “Those yesterdays/Cruising in my Chevrolet/I held my baby in my arms/But my first love was always the songs,” Springsteen croons over swaying horns and relaxed organ notes.

The E Street Band, aside from its horn section, is absent. This was a more casual project recorded late at night during lockdown restrictions, with producer Ron Aniello and engineer Rob Lebret. The style is sweeter, less of a mighty wall of sound than Springsteen’s most familiar work, but his gruff, weathered voice is a fine fit for soul. On When She Was My Girl, by The Four Tops, he holds an impressively long note and gives gravitas to the mildly funky instrumentation.

The track selection makes clear that this is material collected with love rather than an easy shot at a chart topper. The most familiar songs are probably The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, which is faithful to the Walker Brothers version, and Jimmy Ruffin’s Motown classic What Becomes of the Brokenhearted. A few others might feel new to all but serious soul afficionados, and nothing here will be unwelcome when he returns to Hyde Park for two giant shows next summer.