“I can write about Cadillacs and girls named Maria all day long, and I can quote other songs,” says Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon. “It’s second nature to me. But I don’t wanna do that anymore.”
On their breakthrough second album, 2008’s The’59 Sound, the New Brunswick, N.J.-bred quartet indeed either referenced or outright parroted lines from a litany of rock ’n’ roll icons—Springsteen, Dylan, Tom Petty, Bob Seger, Tom Waits and more—and offered enough of its own backstreet-and-blue-collar-romance-and-blues sentiments to make listening to it feel like getting a “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” postcard on your doorstep 35 years after it was mailed.
Musically, between Fallon’s throaty, yearning howl and the band’s fiery, guitar-propelled combination of heartland-rock, ’70s punk and outlaw-folk, the album mostly came off like the Boss, the Clash and Social Distortion teaming up for one of those all-star jams at the end of some benefit concert. All of which isn’t to say the album didn’t sound terrific, because it did, but the foursome—which also includes guitarist Alex Rosamilia, bassist Alex Levine and drummer Benny Horowitz— didn’t just wear their influences on their sleeves, they practically tattooed them on their arms.
But, as Fallon—friendly, earnest, blunt and defiant all at once—notes over the phone from his home in New York, things have changed with their new album, American Slang. The 10-song LP doesn’t exactly say goodbye to Springsteen and the Jerz, but it sticks them in the rear-view mirror, ever-shrinking from sight.
“When I set out to write the lyrics for [’59 Sound], I was saying, ‘I need to let people know where we are from. We are from here and here only. And we’re not from anywhere else and we’re speaking this language to these people, and hopefully they understand.’ And then once we had done that, the book was closed. You don’t get any more jukeboxes and Saturday nights because I’ve said all I have to say about that.
“The guys I look up to—Neil Young and Pearl Jam and Wilco and Tom Waits and Bruce—they’ve made completely different records if you look back at their career,” Fallon continues. “I think that’s part of being honest. I don’t think you can regurgitate the same thing and go, ‘Let’s make The ’60 Sound!’ The next album had to be an evolution from that, or else I would feel like we were cheating the influences we came from.”
Because Fallon hasn’t abandoned his Springsteen/Strummer grit for, say, a Thom Yorke falsetto or Auto-Tune, American Slang maintains at least some link to its predecessor—when he sings “Give me the fevers that just won’t break” in “Bring It On,” you might swear you’re listening to a bootleg of Bruce and the E Street Band at the Spectrum on the Born to Run tour. But mostly it sounds bigger, grander, more soaring, more ambitious, more epic. More diverse, too: The rootsy soul of “The Diamond Church Street Choir” finds the appealing midpoint between Van Morrison and the Replacements; “Orphans” swaggers and rumbles with mod-punk exuberance; and “We Did It When We Were Young” closes things out with haunting tick-tock atmospherics.
The greatest leap is in Fallon’s lyrics. Nostalgia is rejected here: “Don’t sing me your songs about the good times/ Those days are gone and you should just let them go,” he sings in “Old Haunts.” And throughout, his words seem to unfold more as personal confessions than character sketches. Though Fallon confirms that much of the album—which touches on issues of family, wounded love, disappointment, rebellion and sacrifice—is autobiographical, he shies away from addressing specific lines, both out of reluctance to taint others’ interpretations and as a means to guard himself from the prying press, with whom he says he has a “love/hate relationship.”
“I always had these characters, these names, to hide behind. And when I abandoned that I was like, ‘Oh man, now what? All this stuff is gonna be out on the table for people to pick at.’ I could just imagine the sharpening knives of the reporters and the reviewers.”
Still, the press both here and abroad has been overwhelmingly kind to the album and the band. Rolling Stone recently named Gaslight one of their “40 Reasons To Be Excited About Music,” and plenty of critical and fan slobbering from all quarters generated enough advance excitement to land American Slang at #16 on Billboard ’s Top 200 albums chart in its first week—far higher than the band ever charted before—and get them on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
All of which has Fallon ruminating on the nature, and nobility, of commercial success. “It’s not a crime to succeed,” he insists. “That was a big thing where we came from, the whole New Brunswick punk scene, where everyone was like, ‘You can’t do this or that or the other thing.’ But we never said we were part of that scene. We just grew up on the same street. Thank God I had the foresight at the beginning to never say we were a punk band from the punk community and that we were going to hold tight to a certain set of rules. I was respectful of the punk community, and we’re a DIY band and we come from a punk-rock background. But if we get to play Madison Square Garden, then that’s cool and people who have a problem with it can cry outside if they want to, but we’re gonna do it because my mom would be proud, and that’s awesome.”
And as for those persistent Springsteen comparisons, further perpetuated by the mainstream press just now discovering Gaslight Anthem, Fallon is equally philosophical. “I think we’ll grow into our own thing. If it was true that we sat around saying ‘We really wanna be like Bruce and we wanna be from New Jersey and do this Asbury Park thing,’ then it would never go away. But we as a band are like, ‘This is where we come from, but we’re going so many other places.’ Maybe people will recognize that, or maybe they won’t. Who knows? But for people to say that you remind them of Bruce, he’s had a pretty respectable career, and at the end of the day I lay in bed and think, ‘If that’s how I’m gonna be thought of, that’s not such a bad thing.’”
Thurs., July 29
With Tim Barry
River Stage at Great Plaza
Chestnut St. and Columbus Blvd.
In Memoriam: Lou Reed