Nov 11, 2022
By Michael James Hall
When his multi-decade shift at the docks of rock is over and done, New Jersey’s most beloved son will go down as one of the greatest and most universally admired performers to ever roll up his sleeves, strap on a telecaster and shout “1,2,3,4!”
Bruce Springsteen isn’t just an institution. To his multitudinous hardcore fans he’s the head of a religion, albeit one whose teachings can be contradictory. He’s the voice of the world’s working classes who by his own admission never had a real job in his life; the socialist singer who filled stadiums and made millions on the majors; the man who wrote anti-war anthem “Born in the USA” only to see it co-opted as a right wing chant of jingoism, and spoke of “Racing in the Streets” before he had a driver’s license. Most recently we’ve seen his camp allow Ticketmaster to use “dynamic pricing” on tickets for his upcoming tour while simultaneously touting this new album paying tribute to the classic soul era of Stax and Motown. It’s a celebration of the music of the people, by the people, and for the people—but you may need to pay thousands to see it played live.
Cruel ironies aside, what we have here is Springsteen’s second album of covers following 2006’s majestic We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, which saw him interpret a clutch of traditional folk classics. This time he revisits the golden era of soul with similarly satisfying results.
While going back to the “Great American Songbook” may be something of a cliché, this isn’t Rod Stewart’s heinous Soulbook in spite of the similarities in source material. Nor is it Phil Collins’ Going Back which, to be kind, was an album that came out in 2010. This is largely because Springsteen really, ultimately is a soul singer—he just happens to play in a rock band. Springsteen also lacks cynicism and you can feel his love for these songs pour from the speakers.
Wanting to make a record where he “just sings” pays dividends, his gravel growl maneuvered and contorted into an emotive instrument with aspects of hushed humor and rare grace. His take on the transcendent “Nightshift” (The Commodores) is a gruff, beautiful thing that highlights the tenderness of the bittersweet lyrics and majestically melancholic tune. Dobie Gray’s “Soul Days” reflects on the glory days of soul, even as it becomes a part of its fabric—and Springsteen excels with these kinds of reflective, reflexive celebrations. The presence of Sam Moore of the legendary Sam & Dave adds gravitas and legitimacy here, his voice glorious as ever.
When he shifts to legendary ballads like “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” (The Walker Brothers) and “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” (Jimmy Ruffin) the album stalls. There’s very little left to be explored in these standards and Springsteen’s limitations as a crooner prove to be a hindrance in songs which absolutely demand to soar.
Yet on “Hey, Western Union Man” (Jerry Butler) and “7 Rooms of Gloom” (The Four Tops) he excels, charging headlong into the songs and giving them a raucous, gospel feel. Conversely Springsteen’s whisper is still a thing of hushed, weary wonder, and on “Turn Back the Hands of Time” (Tyrone Davis) he finds the perfect song to display his range, from a sweet, breathy murmur to a righteous roar. The fingerprints of these songs are all over his best work with The E Street Band and he’s keen to show off their influence.
There’s nothing pedestrian here, nothing that feels rote—Springsteen puts his heart into every moment, every word of these songs and regardless of a few missteps, he affords this album perhaps more passion than even his own recent records. It’s the sound of a man in love with the genre and fighting to do it justice. He’s never going to match the originals and he seems to understand that, offering instead enthusiastic and sincere tribute.
Closer “Someday We’ll Be Together” (Diana Ross & The Supremes) serves as the ideal, uplifting coda, Rob Mathes’ gorgeous string arrangements shining here as they do throughout, and while the sound is polished, produced, Springsteen himself never is, and that adds real depth, real soul to an album that demands it.
So while there may be holes to poke in the legend of “The Boss,” and some fun to be made of the old rocker tackling the tunes of his youth, Springsteen, ever the utilitarian, gets the job done here. It may be neither a classic Springsteen or soul album, and it may just be impossible to make a truly great album with such a familiar concept, but at the very least it stands as a passionate love letter to the sweet soul songs that helped shape both modern music and Springsteen himself. (www.brucespringsteen.net)
Author rating: 7/10
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