The Gaslight Anthem, American Slang
Moving past simple bash-and-shout into mature, nuanced songwriting
The Gaslight Anthem are one of the few bands operating that can be blessed with a quick critical ascent and still come out looking like underdogs. It's something about the sound of frontman Brian Fallon's voice, that wiseass-romantic look in his eye, their no-frills, no-fuss whiskey-soda aesthetic. Objectively speaking, their 2008 breakthrough, The '59 Sound had one trick, but it was a good one, funneling blue-collar bar rock through a punk aesthetic. Footnoters yelled "Springsteen," but the album telegraphed Social Distortion more than anything else, Fallon's 100-pack-a-day howl roaring up the center. American Slang is bigger and brasher and, on the whole, more satisfying than its predecessor, with Fallon moving past simple bash-and-shout into mature, nuanced songwriting. There are flecks of R&B scattered across "Bring It On," Fallon's cry of "Wait a minute, wait a minute" on the breakdown sounding like it was grafted straight out of an old Stax revue. Like all of Fallon's best songs, that one's a poem scrawled on the back of a bar napkin. "The Diamond Street Church Choir," which is straight gospel, the "Whoah, whoah whoah"s on the chorus and steady twitch of guitar the kind of number The Jam might have produced if they ever recorded with the Staples Singers.
There are still plenty of moments that spotlight what Gaslight does best: namely, decorate marauding punk numbers with a single silvery guitar lead and let Fallon do his wildest in the middle. The best of these, "Stay Lucky," comes early in the album, a horse-charging backbreaker that finds Fallon declaring, "Them old records won't be saving your soul." This is no throwaway sentiment. The '59 Sound was a record about records — it opened with the sound of a needle on vinyl, and the title track hoping that its doomed hero got to hear his favorite song before he died. American Slang makes no such promises: Fallon asks "The Queen of Lower Chelsea," "Were your records all you had to pass the time?" and on "Old Haunts" he bellows, "Don't sing me no songs about the good times/ Those days are gone, and you should just let them go." It's not a bold sentiment so much as a mature one: There comes a point when a person has to move past their record collection, out into the real world, out into real life. The '59 Sound overtly referenced its influences, but American Slang synthesizes them, and uses them as conduits with which to explore genuine human loss and ache. It looks past the jukebox to the sad-eyed loner sitting next to it, past the worn-thin punk t-shirts and faded tattoos to bruised — but still beating — hearts of countless American Saturday nights.