Review Summary: Why doesn't every rock band make music like this?
You're meant to begin these sorts of reviews by talking up the band's previous album and giving a bit of context for the one you're reviewing, right? Does anybody mind if I skip that part? The '59 Sound
, quietly became one of the defining records of my decade for reasons I don't really think I can explain, despite how much I love it, and how ingrained those songs are into my head after dozens of listens. I know what I'd want to say, but how can you possibly say things like 'I want to scream every single one of the tracks at the top of my lungs from a mountain', or 'every other rock band in their entire country should be ashamed that they're not this good', or 'I basically hated rock music and they changed my mind' without sounding like a pretentious jerk?
So how can I even react to a follow-up - how can American Slang
even dream of coming up against that? I shouldn't have worried; they've managed it. American Slang
is a very subtle step forward from The '59 Sound
, conjuring exactly the same thrills from slightly different angles. They're still the archetypal blue-collar all-American rock band given an emotionally sloppy, musically slick post-punk makeover, but here their palettes have broadened beyond Springsteen, Counting Crows, the Americanized end of The Clash, and blue-eyed soul to include the likes of Tom Petty (rather than just name-dropping him), Sam's Town
-era Killers, and even (gasp!) foreign sources like Elvis Costello. It's reassuringly familiar, just as everything they've done is, but moments like the guitar solo on "Stay Lucky", the first few seconds of "American Slang", and most of "The Queen of Lower Chelsea" would have sat uncomfortably on the last album, or 2007's debut Sink or Swim
for that matter.
It's not what I expected, purely because 'subtle' is not a word I'd ever really associate with The Gaslight Anthem. Truthfully their music is anything but; they paint broadly with emotions and stories, balancing the vagueness of their allegories out with selected minor character details ('here's where the angels and devils meet' vs. 'my father had died' on the title track; 'I'm a cannonball to a house on fire' vs. 'what man couldn't love her with that long black hair' on "The Spirit of Jazz"). Springsteen is the obvious comparison to be made there, just as it always was, but frontman Brian Fallon might be better served by being compared to another classic rock megastar - he has the youthful, direct energy of the young Bono, the wisdom of the old Bono, and a consistency neither could ever achieve. His lyrics and his delivery - both of them never less than passionate, sensitive, and full-blooded - are clearly the key to this band, and he still brings his A-game at all times.
Time will tell whether this becomes the constant soundtrack to my life that The '59 Sound
did. I'm not sure yet; the one thing I will say is that a couple of the tracks here take clear cues from earlier ones ("Stay Lucky" starts in a very similar vein to "The '59 Sound", and the 'Just like a tomb' line in "Old Haunts" is taken from the pre-chorus 'my heart's like a wound' on "Great Expectations"), and on first impression, that indicates that this an album that will remind the listener of other things rather than one they'll enjoy purely on its own merits. There sure are some great moments, though - "Old Haunts" itself offers up a chorus so perfectly judged I almost want to applaud it, and both of "American Slang" and "Stay Lucky" are clearly, effortlessly masterful.
Looking at this on a purely objective level, it's almost exactly as good as its older brother; it's actually slightly better, if anything. I really hope that I learn to agree with that assessment subjectively, but even if I don't, this is still a disgracefully good album by a disgracefully good band, and it's nailed-on to be a year-end highlight.