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Only The Strong Survive (Sony)

A COVERS ALBUM FROM BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, 15 soul and R&B songs from the ‘60s and early ‘70s, including two duets with Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave), means … A good time? A placeholder? A chance to break free? A sign of creative stasis?

There is nothing wrong with a covers album, nor with an album celebrating your influences or key markers in your musical education. Why not pay tribute? Why not have fun with songs you love? Why not say these are songs and songwriters and performers who should not be forgotten? Why not give to fans who might not know the roots of your work some entry points or directions to follow?

Speaking as one music fan, I have made hundreds of discoveries and opened up scores of new areas of interest thanks to individual songs or whole albums of covers by artists I followed. I’ll take my inspirations wherever I can frankly.

None of which is to say that covers necessarily add value. Rod Stewart perfunctorily running through the (now obligatorily capitalised) Great American Songbook to sales increasing in inverse proportion to his commitment to the material, and Human Nature enthusiastically but anonymously pinning Motown to the cabaret floor, got to the style and to a fair extent the mechanics, but never to the core of the songs.

(And who is going to be the first to bring up Duran Duran repurposing the likes of Public Enemy, Melle Mel, Bob Dylan and The Temptations? Yes, that list still is staggering and hilarious, even before you hear them. And then especially when you hear them.)

Contrast those with Dylan’s idiosyncratic Songbook covers, which like Willie Nelson’s Stardust, loosened the style and vocal traditions but zeroed in on the lyrical and tonal heart of the material, or the way Joni Mitchell (Both Sides Now), Cat Power (The Covers Record) and Shelby Lynne (Just A little Lovin) explored the frameworks and honoured the intentions while still bringing themselves to the material in ways that changed, even if subtly, those songs. And in its own way We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, Springsteen’s 2006 folk/traditional covers record, drove a fair bit of oomph up those well-worn highways.

Now? Springsteen has said that with this album – made with minimal contribution from The E Street Band with whom he is about to go back out on tour, but still full of brass and strings and bass and drums and healthy backing vocals – was a chance for him just to sing. It’s an interesting way to put it and, while open to interpretation, borne out on this record.

Because beyond not having to tell a bigger story, position these songs in today’s political/social context, or “represent” anything or anyone – the requirements which he has long embraced but nonetheless weigh on every record he makes in a manner that can unbalance our reactions as much is his purpose – it seems to me that what he means by that is not looking to reconstruct or deconstruct, expand or drill down, but just to exist within.

And Springsteen is very happy existing within these songs. Whether raspy and urgent in the manner of a hot to the touch soul preacher, or smoothly aged but not yet ageing like a man who still believes, whether tender and cracked in the guise of a lover-to-be-spurned, or finding a late in life bounce like a man surprised to still be wanted, Springsteen’s singing here is unforced and attractive. It’s not just that it has been captured in a most flattering production; it brings perception and depth of understanding, and then his joy on top.

He sounds shop-fresh in Do I Love You (Indeed I Do), well lived-in through When She Was My Girl’s pre-disco discotheque groove, both solid and positively lifted by the choral backing (and glistening strings) in Someday We’ll Be Together, and if the huskiness and push overtakes the vulnerability in I Wish It Would Rain, he uses those same qualities to earth Nightshift in a way that enhances rather than detracts from the melodic prettiness and the smoothness of the backing voices.

What isn’t on offer, and quite clearly was not intended, is any re-imagining of these songs or any claiming of them as his to own rather than borrow. Arrangements work within familiar boundaries, with on occasion a bit more punch, a little stiffer-legged beat than originally, an extra layer of accompaniment at other times. But essentially all of the tracks are treated respectfully and with love, almost as artefacts.

That’s fine, but it prompts another batch of questions as we return to the value of a covers album. Do we need another version of What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted? like the ones we know, even as Hey, Western Union Man is more likely to be a discovery? Beyond its cuteness, does Don’t Play That Song lift itself above the pack? Is there something new to be found in I Wish It Would Rain beyond having it done by him? Can more pathos be wrung from The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore?

Given I’m answering no to those, in the end Only The Strong Survive makes for a fun record, one that reminds you how good these songs are and allows you to revel in the qualities that appealed to Springsteen, and us, for decades. What it doesn’t make for is a record that demands you own it.


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