On their fourth album, Brian Fallon finds his own voice
Denim smeared with car grease. A tatty vinyl copy of Bruce Springsteen’s 1978 classic ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’. A tub of pomade and the buzz of a burly tattooist’s needle. You think you know New Jersey heartland punks The Gaslight Anthem, do you? Sure, you can still smell the engine oil and see the neon of a small-town liquor store flashing in the distance when you listen to ‘Handwritten’. But on the New Jersey quartet’s fourth album singer Brian Fallon has torn his gaze from nostalgia-driven replays of American Graffiti and directed it in on himself to make an album about love, both lost and found. About what’s happening in his heart, guts and balls, rather than the view from the driver’s seat of his vintage motor. So it’s no surprise that the album is a beefier and more emotionally brutal offering than 2010’s glossy, E Street-shuffling ‘American Slang’.
Strapping opener ‘45’ is a masterclass in how to begin an album. An impeccable three-and-a-half minute dose of shuddering rock’n’roll which counterbalances winsome longing with a kegful of homebrewed passion, it’s a chest-swelling tribute to the way your mates and music are always there to help when it comes to getting over your ex.
‘Handwritten’ still boasts the band’s trademark shimmering six-string embellishments and introspective lyrics, as honed on their breakthrough second album ‘The ’59 Sound’ – just try out the pulsing ‘Mae’ for a devastating combination of the two. But on ‘Mulholland Drive’, Fallon ups the ante with some epic romance, as the object of his affections offers up such ominously intense statements as “I’d just die if you ever took your love away”. It’s emo in the truest sense, a display of unfettered sentiment and, yes, in the classic Gaslight Anthem tradition, the story develops as Brian and beau make out against a car on Mulholland Drive, while the radio plays and Fallon quotes Bruce Springsteen. Hey, if it ain’t broke… There’s even more endearingly butch slushiness on ‘Biloxi Parish’, which is about as soppy as you can get while under the cosh of a wailing, Slash-worthy riff from Alex Rosamilia’s guitar.
Travelling to Nashville to record the album – a city currently clawing back its musical heritage from the fists of Taylor Swift and her ilk with the help of Jack White – shows The Gaslight Anthem are keen on upholding a historically rooted kind of Americana. It’s this that sees them drawing a line back to some of the city’s former residents, like proto-punk Johnny Cash and the king of hard-livin’ heartache Hank Williams, both of whom can boast some subtle sway on ‘Handwritten’ in both delivery and content, as displayed to full effect on the candid and affecting ‘Too Much Blood’.
At Nashville’s Blackbird Studio, the four-piece joined forces with producer Brendan O’Brien, whose metal-friendly background includes stints working with Pearl Jam, Incubus and Audioslave, as well as post-millennium Springsteen. The result is a weighty collection of tunes that toughens up the band’s predilection of a softly rendered, Cure-indebted jangle and nudges the harder edges of Green Day’s stadium punk as well as slipping in a Ronettes drum roll and a titular wink to the Pixies on ‘Here Comes My Man’, and despite the album’s mostly mushy subject matter, Fallon sounds more fired up and ferocious than ever before. His renewed vigour can perhaps be put down to the creative coup that was last year’s Horrible Crowes project, in which he and guitar tech Ian Perkins indulged a passion for the gruff, shadow-lit balladry and blues of Tom Waits.
Sparse album closer ‘National Anthem’ leans more towards the Crowes’ sound, and is wildly different to anything else on the record. Featuring a velvety voiced Fallon crooning over understated strings and wide-open freeway flamenco, instead of invoking his more obvious idols, here it’s Bob Dylan he conjures up. Yet despite his continued, gracious nods to a host of musical grandmasters, on ‘Handwritten’ Brian Fallon’s showing more of his true self than ever before.