From out of a cultural drought, a long stretch devoid of any new releases that really excited me, emerge three at once. Three sparkling shards of American cultural output, missives from the City on the Hill.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ first album in eight years, Mojo, emerges in the same week as the third album from a band who count the Heartbreakers as a major influence; The Gaslight Anthem’s American Slang. Completing the trio (but only available in the States at the moment…) is Bret Easton Ellis’s new novel Imperial Bedrooms, hotly anticipated by British readers until 2nd July.
My review of The ‘59 Sound was one of the first things I wrote on here, and is available for your delectation. The record is bound up inextricably with memories of last summer; finishing university, long train journeys, watching Glastonbury on TV. Just in time for another summer comes American Slang, arriving on a wave of hype and anticipation created, in part, by the band’s appearance at Glasto last year and Bruce Springsteen’s guest spot with them, affirming what is now a bond of mutual appreciation.
I thought The ‘59 Sound was a brilliant album, a concise, lean statement of intent that blazed in, did what it had to do and got out again less than 40 minutes later leaving the listener exhausted by its pace and passion. It follows, then that I am troubled by all the concerns that follow such a record: will its successor be too similar? Too different? Just not as good? An inappropriate swerve into electronica/folk/pseudo-metal? Thankfully, my fears have been, for the most part, allayed. If American Slang commits any of these sins it is being too similar to The ‘59 Sound, but this is surely the least of all the evils above. Both are short records, snappy and without a moment wasted. The basic formula of American punk with added bluesy grooves and Middle (-of-the-road) American rock’n’roll references remains, and much as it runs the risk of becoming formulaic it seems a successful move.
The pace is similar to The ‘59 Sound and, for the most part, suffers from the same lack of variation. There are two sorts of songs, the fast ones and the not-so-fast ones where we all pause to gather breath; in these ones, Fallon can finally get all the words into a line without running into the next one (such are the perils of being a well-read and verbose punk). It is in these more reflective moments (Bring It On, We Did It When We Were Young) The Gaslight Anthem manage to transcend their punk/rock sound, more groove, more blues, more passion. Occasionally though, they stray a little too close to pompous rock balladry: the line “What you don’t have you don’t need it any more”, in “Stay Lucky”, was bouncing around my head. I knew it, I’d heard it somewhere before. The ‘59 Sound was peppered with references to bands, albums, songs and even Dickens novels, so I thought it probably a quote from somewhere or other. It came to me sitting in a traffic jam; it’s a line from U2’s “Beautiful Day.” Punks that like U2? Curiouser and curiouser.
The passion that runs through every single line of American Slang is astonishing. The listener is left in no doubt: Brian Fallon MEANS it. The sincerity is what enables it to succeed; just like Springsteen, still their largest influence, only the sheer, bloody-minded candor saves the songs from accusations of audacity and hubris.
Immaculately recorded and deftly underproduced, it sounds like a band in control, comfortable in their skin. Production is once again by ex-Flogging Molly man Ted Hutt, and he wisely stays away from the potentially wild excesses that could have marred this supposedly difficult third album. There’s a little more guitar dexterity, a few more well-placed tubular bell samples and backing vocals. The narrative too is more elegant, with a little less “Jersey boys desperate to escape” and more “Jersey boys see the big wide world for the first time, quite like it, yearn for meaning”. What remains, however, is a sense of wistfulness, an unspecified longing for something better than all this.
The Springsteenisms are still present, most notably in the strangled screams at the end of “The Diamond Church Street Choir” and the ‘whoa-oh-oh’s of “The Spirit of Jazz”, where the resemblance is uncanny. Since The ‘59 Sound, Springsteen has become not only Fallon’s biggest influence but the band’s biggest champion, famously appearing onstage with them at Glastonbury.
American Slang lacks the sheer coherence and wall-to-wall consistency of delivery that The ‘59 Sound boasted, but it has some gems. I’ve found myself playing the first five tracks then skipping a couple to get to “Old Haunts”, perhaps the best track on the record. It seems ironic that a band so preoccupied with the retro make such a big play of a song that implores “Don’t sing me your songs about the good times / Those days are gone and you should just let them go / God help the man who says ‘If you’d have known me when…’ / Old haunts are for forgotten ghosts” Echos for me of the last few tracks on Counting Crows’ August and Everything After: “A Murder of One” screams “All your life is such a shame, shame / Don’t waste your life”, “Ghost Train” plays on the same imagery.
As I finished this piece I was still struggling to explain what it is about The Gaslight Anthem’s music that manages to transcend its relatively simplistic form and hit home so hard. In the end, I suppose, we’re back to the notions of sincerity and passion already discussed. If you really mean it, we’ll forgive you a few songs that sound the same as all the rest, a few lyrical cliches and a couple of deeply unfashionable influences because we’re swept up in the meaning of the moment. That, surely, is what rock’n’roll should do.