Only the Strong Survive

Only the Strong Survive

From the start, Bruce Springsteen has braided the poetic reach of Dylan with the energy and showmanship of a soul singer—so it makes sense that he finally decided to take a minute and pay explicit tribute to the soul and R&B that shaped him. The reads on Only the Strong Survive are pretty straight, and you get the sense that that’s the point: Rather than flatter his own interpretive powers, he gets out of the way and lets the songs—and their original arrangements—come through. He’s had practice here, of course: Reflecting on his early days, he once wrote that his high school band The Castiles kept their repertoire stacked with soul covers because they “made the leather heart skip a beat”—a nod to the motorcycle-jacketed Jersey kids who couldn’t make heads or tails of the bohemian milieu of The Beatles or The Rolling Stones but knew everything about “In the Still of the Night” without a lesson or nothing. Soul, for Springsteen, wasn’t just a matter of raw expression or physical endurance, but the sound of working-class people claiming a dignity and comfort that might otherwise be beyond their reach, especially the upwardly mobile orchestrations of Motown. Even after he’d proved his seriousness and credibility as an artist, he kept his music studiously low to the ground, channeling the fresh-off-work feel of Sam Cooke into “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and the ache of Otis Redding into “The Brokenhearted,” or the rock-and-soul hybrids of “Badlands,” “Prove It All Night,” and “Glory Days.” When he finally brought what he later called “the next-generation E Street Band” onto the stage at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in March 2012, he introduced himself with a joke any self-respecting James Brown fan would get: “the hardest-working white man in show business.” In terms of selection, Only the Strong is an interesting mix. Plenty of Motown, most of it well-known (The Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together,” Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” The Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain”), but also the Frankie Valli (and later Walker Brothers) track “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” whose Vegas-style sound anticipated Springsteen’s own balance of rawness and carefully orchestrated melodrama. Or The Four Tops’ “7 Rooms of Gloom,” which is about as close as classic R&B gets to psychedelia, to say nothing of Springsteen’s own music, which always felt like a rejoinder to the looseness and experimentation of late-’60s rock. “If you played in a bar on the central New Jersey shore in the ’60s and ’70s, you played soul,” he said onstage at the Apollo in 2012. In Only the Strong Survive, you can hear the gaps—between Black and white, wealthy and working-class, elevated and elemental—Springsteen has spent more than a half-century trying to close. One night, and one night only.

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