In the place of his more characteristic touch is a confident, faithful, and occasionally synthetic-sounding accompaniment provided largely by Aniello as his one-man band. (Sam Moore of Sam & Dave makes two welcome appearances as a guest vocalist.) Since 2012’s Wrecking Ball and its grab-bag follow-up High Hopes, Aniello has proven to be Springsteen’s most focused studio collaborator, seemingly pushing him to explore a specific element on each release. On 2019’s Western Stars, it was a wistful, melodic side of his solo songwriting, embellished with lush orchestral arrangements that felt like completely new territory. On 2020’s warm plate of comfort food Letter to You, it was the live-in-the-studio sound of the E Street Band: a familiar atmosphere that encouraged Springsteen to dig back into his catalog for abandoned songs he had yet to record with his bandmates.
On Only the Strong Survive, as Springsteen tells it, the focus is his voice. In an introductory video, he is practically shouting with excitement about the fruits of this exercise. (“I’m a good old man,” he says, cracking himself up.) You can hear what’s got him so hyped. From a gravelly whisper to a full-throated croon, a giddy roar to an anguished howl, the material allows him to explore the range of his late-career delivery, the same way his Broadway show could swerve between vulnerability and self-effacing humor without losing its narrative thread. There’s a jolt of comic desperation as he bellows “I live with emptiness” to kick off “7 Rooms of Gloom” and a sense of profound tenderness as he tells us it’s “gonna be all right” in “Nightshift.” He makes the nostalgia of “Soul Days” feel like a recollection of his formative years in Asbury Park, while it’s easy to imagine the regret of “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” situated between his own tortured chronicles of couples drifting in and out of each other’s lives.
On a record whose unrelenting brightness veers as close to Vegas as Springsteen has ever allowed himself—even 1992’s Human Touch, another largely upbeat collection with a similar set of influences, feels downright gritty by comparison—these moments of purpose help earn its place in his ongoing winning streak of studio work. It’s got character, and more than that, it’s got energy: Springsteen has never sounded quite so lighthearted, so unburdened, on record. It’s easy to think of a few ways he could have made this music feel more essential to his body of work—say, enlisting his E Street bandmates to help flesh some songs out—but at this stage in his career, he seems more driven by the act of creating itself: lighting a spark and watching as it grows, knowing someone, somewhere, could find a little hope in its light. After all, he reminds us, that’s what these songs provided for him.
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