By Hal Horowitz
Though it's a surprising side road in his prolific career, Springsteen is clearly passionate about this soul material - and if it encourages fans to track down the iconic versions of songs that got his young blood bubbling, he will have done his job.
Bruce Springsteen: soul singer?
That’s the theory behind this surprising side road in the star’s long and storied career. But doing the unexpected comes naturally to Springsteen. After all, this is the guy who followed 1980’s expansive The River with 1982’s solo, low-fi acoustic ruminations of Nebraska, ultimately leading to the explosive, stadium-rocking Born in the U.S.A.
As Springsteen recounts in the short but pointed video about how this album came to be, the project intended to feature his vocals on some old soul gems and obscurities that were an essential aspect of his upbringing.
The method, though, is also unusual. Instead of hiring a band - or using his dependable E Street Band mates - he hands the reins over to co-producer/engineer Ron Aniello. Through the use of numerous overdubs, Aniello plays almost every instrument except horns. Strings and backing vocals are also outsourced, but generally this is a two-man effort.
On paper, this sounds problematic.
The magic of these R&B masterworks was, at least partially, in the organic playing over which brilliant singers like Dobie Gray (‘Soul Days’), Tyrone Davis (‘Turn Back the Hands of Time’), David Ruffin from The Temptations (‘I Wish It Would Rain’), Ben E. King (‘Don’t Play that Song’) and others emoted. With just one person juggling those chores, that template is likely to be compromised.
Credit Aniello for generally avoiding that trap. Through a combination of his obvious talents (there aren’t many who can convincingly handle guitar, drums, bass, keyboards and even vibes) and the wonders of technology, he effectively replicates the instrumental backing on which Springsteen’s gritty, tenacious singing is overlaid.
Springsteen is clearly passionate about this material (“My first love is always those songs” he sings in ‘Soul Days’). While no one would confuse him with the Four Tops’ great Levi Stubbs on a sincere take of the classic ‘7 Rooms of Gloom’, or the amazing Jimmy Ruffin who provided ‘What Becomes of the Broken Hearted’ with its sensitive, despairing touch, Springsteen turns in more than credible performances of these and 13 other tracks comprising this set.
Of course, nothing bests the originals, something even Springsteen would admit. It’s also worth wondering how much more powerful these covers would be in the hands of his E Street Band compatriots, sweating it out on stage with the synergy and interpersonal electricity that makes them one of the finest outfits in rock and roll.
This may be a one-off while Springsteen ponders his next move. But as a stop-gap, it’s plenty effective. And if it encourages fans to track down the iconic versions of songs that got the young Springsteen’s teenage blood bubbling, he will have done his job.
Only the Strong Survive is out on Friday 11th November via Columbia. You can purchase the record from Holler's selected partners below: