– by Ben Bishop
In a video of Bruce Springsteen’s 2009 concert at London’s Hyde Park he is joined onstage for a rousing version of “No Surrender” by Brian Fallon, a man almost none of the baby boomers who make up the core of his fan base back in the States would recognize. The guest acquits himself well, reeling off an entire verse and going shoulder to shoulder with The Boss on the choruses. Yet despite coming off as dignified and gracious he can’t quite conceal his elation. Clapping along to Max Weinberg’s beat with a giddiness one can only imagine a Jersey kid who grew up listening to “Born in the USA” must have been feeling, Fallon proceeds to rock out with his idol in front of a crowd tens of thousands strong.
That Springsteen is Fallon’s idol can hardly be in doubt following the release of American Slang, the latest offering from The Gaslight Anthem, the band he fronts. The album has seen the New Brunswick, NJ natives transition away from their proto-punk roots towards a space somewhere between the Jersey Shore sound of the early 70’s and the nostalgic amalgam of indie and classic rock that has become a niche in and of itself. Never, despite the zealous proclamations of many critics regarding any number of acts over the last half decade, has a band channeled so closely and vigorously the spirit of Bruce Springsteen.
The man who brought us Nebraska has become a totemic figure in certain indie circles; his blue-collar cred and ability to wed immortal hooks and Motown swagger with narratives that rival Dylan’s in their complexity and raw tenderness have made him the man everyone wants to be. Or more accurately, the man who every critic’s pet band supposedly, suddenly, sounds like.
True, the monster riff on The Killer’s “When You Were Young” was undeniably influenced by the xylophone-backed hook from “Born to Run.” And yes, The Arcade Fire’s Win Butler wields a raspy moan capable of imbuing a song like “Keep the Car Running” taut with the same kind of anguish that winds through so much of Springsteen’s darker work. But The Killers are ripping Springsteen off as much as they’re paying homage, and Butler is a protégé whose interpretation of mournful depths heads in a different direction than the master. Could Butler honestly sing “State Trooper” with the same integrity? The comparisons only ever go so far. At least until The Gaslight Anthem made the jump from punk to rock.
American Slang plays like a record Springsteen would have made if he had come of age in the 90’s listening to The Ataris and Jimmy Eat World. His brand of working class rock served as a precursor and parallel sound to English punk, tapping into the same disenchanted loss. It seems fitting that, thirty years later, a band of Jersey boys hailing from a town less than an hour’s drive from Long Branch, NJ where Springsteen grew up, and who started their career playing a straightforward, somewhat innocuous version of that genre, a kind of punk lite, would take up the banner he’s carried for several decades.
The Gaslight Anthem has always relied on the good-faith generated by their energy, both live and on record, using it as a vehicle to make good on the promise of the greatest strength any rock and roll band can have; a charismatic frontman who can actually sing. In Fallon The Gaslight Anthem have a singer who can not only sing, but one who actually sounds like a young Springsteen. When he powers out the line, “Stop pacing around and waiting for some moment that might never arrive,” it’s no stretch to hear a pompadoured Boss crooning, “We’ll run til we drop / baby we’ll never hold back.”
Fallon can play both sides of the field, singing not only of grasping the moment, but also offering meditations on the past as on “The Queen of Lower Chelsea.” The song rides a minor-key, staccato waltz through verses recounting the tale of a girl whose youth is passing her by. The chorus brings an admonishment from the narrator; “When you’re working full time and spending all of your nights never dancing like you used to / When the gravity hangs on all the selling points you hate / You should have stayed and been the queen of lower Chelsea.”
Themes of lost youth predominate on American Slang. Poignant imagery conveys a sense of both growing up and moving forward while also looking back in regret; gathering scars as you long for healing. Nowhere is this more evident than on the album’s bookends. The chorus of the eponymous lead-off romp reads like a letter from a war; “They cut me to ribbons and taught me to drive / I got your name tattooed inside of my arm / And I called for my father but my father had died / Oh well you told me fortunes in American slang.” Fallon has the ability to capture in a single refrain both the temptation and the pleasure of reflecting on the past with a complicated admixture of regret and fondness, as on the LP’s finale We Did It When We Were Young; “But I am older now, and we did it when we were young.”
What seems to help the band live up to the hype they get from Springsteen fans young and old is the way in which they embody his music so holistically. It’s a holism evident in Fallon’s blue-collar narratives as well as in the music itself, and in the music it is most evident in the riffs. Four of the record’s ten songs (“American Slang,” “Stay Lucky,” “Orphans,” and “The Spirit of Jazz,”) open with vaguely similar, trilling leads; riffs that draw attention to the band’s greatest drawback, their commitment to the tropes and methods of a conservative, purist approach to rock. They never veer from traditional structures or instrumentation. It’s a choice that could spell serious danger, as it does every day for thousands of mediocre bands schlepping half-baked renditions of lost Eagles B-sides, if the songwriting weren’t strong enough to leave listeners with a feeling of consistency rather than one of monotony.
Fallon currently lives in Brooklyn, and his lyrics are full to bursting with New York City. He references Gotham on what seems like every other song, evincing a tenderness that can only come from a lifetime spent living in and around the city, the same kind of tenderness one imagines seeping into Fallon’s heart when he fingers all those dog-eared copies of Springsteen records you know he has somewhere in his apartment. Maybe even the same kind of tenderness that was in Springsteen’s eyes when he joined the band onstage the night after that Hyde Park show for their Glastonbury set.
At one point during that set Fallon quieted the crowd and said, “Hey what is that? Seriously wait… SSSssshhhh. I feel like I can hear the waves of my hometown. Who’s back there?” A few moments later New Jersey’s favorite son, now graying at the temples, saunters out to join the band on their classic “The ’59 Sound.” There is a message to read in the twinkle we can easily imagine behind Springsteen’s aviators, the joyous secret his laugh lines give away and his presence on that stage affirms. “The accolades, the praise, the comparisons about other bands sounding like me… that’s all great,” we can almost hear him saying as he hooks a thumb towards the men behind him, his juniors by decades. “But these boys here? These are my people.”