Bruce Springsteen’s 180g 2LP Curated Classic Soul Covers Album, Only The Strong Survive, Spins Proud and True Alongside the Artist’s Already Stellar Catalog

The notion of Bruce Springsteen releasing a vintage soul and pop covers album this late in his career is not all that surprising, really, if you’ve been following The Boss since the beginning like I have. The notion of Only The Strong Survive being a truly good and vital Springsteen album that stands proudly next to the rest of his stellar catalog of albums is just so much sweet icing on the cake.

Bruce Springsteen has been incorporating classic covers into his live sets pretty much since the beginning of his career back in the late-1960s and early-1970s. For one thing, his longtime E Street Band compatriots are essentially a powerhouse soul review modeled after those amazingly tight and fluid bands led by the likes of Ike Turner and James Brown, but also infused with a healthy dose of Chuck Berry, Phil Spector, and Brian Wilson — not to mention bands from The British Invasion like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who, and The Animals.

At any rate, Bruce’s new album — Only The Strong Survive, his 21st studio effort — is only his second full album of covers, the first being April 2006’s quite excellent We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, wherein he paid tribute to legendary folk pioneer Pete Seeger.

I previewed Only The Strong Survive while driving in my car via a pre-downloaded hi-res Qobuz stream, and the album sounded remarkably great. I then went and bought the physical 180g 2LP edition for this review, and I am generally pleased. The standard-weight black vinyl sounds really fine, without any apparent anomalies. It even passed my “high volume” test — as in, there was no distressing harshness or breakup evident like I endured on other Springsteen vinyl, like September 2007’s Magic and January 2014’s High Hopes in particular. (At the very least, I strongly urge the Springsteen camp to remix , ASAP.)


The front LP cover for Only The Strong Survive features a nifty die-cut on the inner gatefold, plus custom inner sleeves that pay proper homage to the paper 45rpm single sleeves of the 1960s and early-’70s. As you may recall, oftentimes, those sleeve came with heavily patterned, classic mid-century art designs.


Survive retails for a fairly reasonable $34.99 for a 2LP set (albeit with one caveat I’ll address later), and there are two domestic color variants — nightshade green and sundance orange — if you choose to go the collectability route.

[MM adds: Eagle-eyed album package perusers will also notice that, more than once, the all-caps word “COVERS” appears next to an oval with the phrase “Vol. 1” inside it; hence, I suspect that’s an obvious tell that more volumes in this series are already in the offing.]


How did this album come together, you ask? On his website, Bruce lays out his intent quite clearly (following in italics):

I wanted to make an album where I just sang. And what better music to work with than the great American songbook of the Sixties and Seventies? I’ve taken my inspiration from Levi Stubbs, David Ruffin, Jimmy Ruffin, the Iceman Jerry Butler, Diana Ross, Dobie Gray, and Scott Walker, among many others. I’ve tried to do justice to them all — and to the fabulous writers of this glorious music. My goal is for the modern audience to experience its beauty and joy, just as I have since I first heard it. I hope you love listening to it as much as I loved making it.

In its own way, Only The Strong Survive is roughly Bruce’s 21st century take on David Bowie’s most excellent October 1973 covers effort Pinups. Musically, however, it is perhaps more closely aligned with Elvis Costello’s fine and swinging May 1995 release, Kojak Variety, wherein he covered everyone from Bob Dylan to The Supremes to Aretha Franklin, and many more.

After going into my first listen of Only The Strong Survive blindly without reading anything about the album’s genesis, I later had an amazing revelation about how the album was crafted in the studio. Just listening on the surface, it is very clear Bruce and his co-producer Ron Aniello built up a rocking soul-review unit worthy of these great songs and their original productions. However, while they also include lush string arrangements — an essential texture to the sound of a lot of those recordings — the reality is, Aniello plays most of the instruments here save for Bruce playing guitar and The E Street Horns doing their thing. This all goes to underscore just how inside the music the two principals were to craft a collection like this one, literally from the ground up, and have it feel so authentic.

While there are no doubt some big songs here that have, over time, become part of the backbone of 20th century pop songwriting, on Only The Strong Survive, Bruce also cherry-picks many fine tunes that some of us probably missed along the way. (I know I did!)

The title track comes by way of The Impressions’ vocalist and songwriter Jerry Butler. Initially, it was a No. 4 Billboard Hot 100 hit, and also reached No.1 on the then-titled Black Singles chart, in March and April 1969. There are also two songs featuring the vocals of Sam Moore — half of the legendary ’60s soul duo Sam & Dave — namely, Dobie Gray’s version of the Jonnie Barnett-penned “Soul Days” and “I Forgot To Be Your Lover,” the latter by Booker T. Jones and William Bell.


Bruce expands his horizons by tackling a late-period Four Tops No. 11-charting single from 1981 called “When She Was My Girl.” I gotta say, I don’t remember ever hearing this song until now, but in the early-1980s, I wasn’t listening to much commercial radio, so it’s entirely logical why I missed it.

Meanwhile, his cover of the Commodores’ “Nightshift” is of a hit song that hails from 1985, a time when most Bruce fans were listening to the ongoing impact of his June 1984 megaseller Born In The U.S.A., and it is also quite something. Clearly, Bruce was keeping his ear to the street, even in the face of his incredible international explosion in popularity (and seemingly never-ending global touring schedule!) around that time.

Bruce throws in some non-soul gems too, such as The Walker Brothers’ 1966 mega-hit, "The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.” He takes this song — written by Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio (of The Four Seasons fame), and originally issued as a single by Four Seasons’ singer Frankie Valli in 1965 in a production Phil Spector probably envied — up a few notches. Bruce’s version is taken at a faster tempo, and indeed feels more Spectorian in scope — and it’s just wonderful. Listen for the bridge section that is blown out in all its Brian Wilson-esque glory, a vibe only hinted at on the original. And then consider the all-important key change towards the end that Bruce soars through effortlessly. His voice sounds fantastic here!


[MM observes: Songwriter Bob Crewe’s last name is egregiously misspelled as “Crew” for the above “Ain’t Gonna” credit on Survive’s back cover, but thankfully, it is correctly spelled in the inner sleeve credits.]


Bruce pulls off a near-epic take on Jimmy Ruffin’s 1966 Motown No. 6 Billboard Hot 100 classic, “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted,” which (for me, at least) just falls short of surpassing Colin Blunstone’s epic, near-power-pop version performed with his band The Zombies in recent years. Blunstone had a No. 13 hit in the UK with it on his own, as recorded with synth/prog keyboardist Dave Stewart, in 1980 — but look for live versions like the one on 2005’s Live at The Bloomsbury Theatre, London, to get an idea of what I’m talking about here. Me, I can’t wait to hear Bruce perform this song live onstage at some point, because you just know there will be performances of it that will be off the charts. This recording is just the template!

Perhaps most stunning is how Bruce pulls off a song initially popularized by Diana Ross & The Supremes — their big 1969 hit, “Someday We’ll Be Together.” He totally rocks it, complete with those essential string parts.


On the downside, I did hear some surface noise on my vinyl copy of Only The Strong Survive, and the first LP in my set has a moderate rollercoaster warp. It is not a dealbreaker, to say the least, but you should be made aware of it in case you need to obtain/audition more than one copy yourself, as this 2LP set is indeed worth owning.

I do have one minor gripe to share that’s not unique to this album, however. I appreciate there are too many songs on Only The Strong Survive to fit comfortably on one disc, effectively resulting in a three-sided album. Sure, putting an ultimately useless laser-etched side with no music on it was neat the first time someone did it, but it now feels like a waste of perfectly good album space. The laser etchings I’ve seen — and I have a bunch of ’em! Ditto!—MM] — have been mostly underwhelming. Fact is, once you look at it, you usually don’t bother with it much at all again.


However, I was taught to offer solutions instead of just complaining about problems. So, with that in mind, how about this idea — when this kind of situation arises in the future, instead of putting five songs per side at 33 1/3rpm, why not make the album more of an audiophile experience with either three or four tunes per side max, and then master the whole shebang so it spins at an audiophile-friendly 45rpm for better fidelity? This way, we consumers won’t feel like we are paying for a partial an album. The other option — which some might consider a better choice, still — is to just fill out the album with more tracks! [A fair point, especially given we already know Bruce always records more than he ever releases at any given time, after all—MM]

If you are a hardcore Bruce Springsteen fan, chances are you may already own Only The Strong Survive in some form or another, a week following its initial release date. But if you have been on the fence and just curious about experiencing Bruce’s music, this album may well be a good — and somewhat career-neutral — introduction to the man’s deep roots, as well as his overall artistry. The bottom line — the joy of an album like Only The Strong Survive is we get turned on to great songs that we might have missed initially, as well as fine interpretations of legendary favorites.

Either way, Only The Strong Survive sure is great closing out the year with a new Bruce Springsteen album in hand, ahead of his impending world tour with the E Street Band. Let’s hope we also get a new studio album of original material next year with The E Street Band behind him. Who’s with me out there?

(Mark Smotroff is an avid vinyl collector who has also worked in marketing communications for decades. He has reviewed music for, among others, and you can see more of his impressive C.V. at LinkedIn.)

Music Direct Buy It Now



180g 2LP (Columbia)

Side A
1. Only The Strong Survive
2. Soul Days (Feat. Sam Moore)
3. Nightshift
4. Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)
5. The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore

Side B
1. Turn Back The Hands of Time
2. When She Was My Girl
3. Hey, Western Union Man
4. I Wish It Would Rain
5. Don’t Play That Song

Side C
1. Any Other Way
2. I Forgot To Be Your Lover (Feat. Sam Moore)
3. 7 Rooms Of Gloom
4. What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted
5. Someday We’ll Be Together

Side D
[no music; laser-etched artwork only]


galacticz00's picture

so this won't. I found it pretty boring. Self indulgent lacking inspiration. Nothing new brought to these classic songs. Not one of Bruce's best. For the fan club only.

Tom L's picture

Springsteen performed some of these songs-Do I Love You (Indeed I Do), Nightshift and Turn Back the Hands of Time-on the Jimmy Fallon show this past week. He was backed by a huge, excellent band which sounded enthusiastic and well-rehearsed. Unfortunately, it just exposed the fact that his voice simply isn't up to the material. I haven't heard the LP yet, but studio trickery can only go so far to disguise his vocal limitations. I know he loves these songs, but the best thing about this release may be that it causes people to go find the original artists and bring them some well-deserved attention.

Jancuso's picture

The Fallon performances, with the exceptionally large & talented band, fully displayed Bruce's love of this material. The album would have been MUCH better if he'd been able to make a live recording with a band like that instead of the 'pandemic', studio, layered recording Bruce made with a small number of talented folks.

garrard701's picture

I love Bruce's first 7 albums (through "Born in the USA"), most of which are before my time. I didn't discover him until well after the E Street Band reunited. So I may be pre-biased toward this material... but from what I heard, it was so boring!
The song selection (lesser-known cuts to the general public) is intriguing, and the packaging and sound are quite good… but he just sounds like he’s tired and trying too hard. This is the kind of project I could see Sammy Hagar doing (and he probably has), with similar results. I do wonder why the album cover isn’t more retro – it looks like a still from one of those pharmaceutical ads aimed at seniors.
What makes this even more flabbergasting is that Bruce has hundreds of great recordings of soul/R&B classics from his live archives. Why not just make a compilation of those? Anyone reading this could probably just do it for themselves.
Grab a copy of the “No Nukes” reissue from last year (not the 1979 original in your nearest dollar bin) and select “Stay,” the full “Detroit Medley,” and “Quarter to Three.”
From the 1986 live box, you’ve got “Raise Your Hand” and “War.”
And then the excellent Cleveland Agora 1978 release has a great encore of “Twist & Shout.”
Elsewhere, you can find Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party” or Chuck Berry’s “Johnny Bye Bye” if you know where to look.
THAT’s how pay Paulie his tribute.

Pigulka's picture

The digital / cd releases have a brickwalled dynamic range, DR5 !!!
I hope the vinyl was cut from a less compressed master.

rwp's picture

I like it. A lot.

Pigulka's picture

Only the deaf survive.

Jancuso's picture

Yes, making records is an 'antiquated', mechanical process, but the goal is flat, quiet, on-center, round records that playback well on your system.