Review Summary: Nostalgic? Yes. Regressive? Yes. Brilliant? Definitely.
Two of the best albums that came out in 2008 were Kanye West's electro-pop experiment 808s and Heartbreak and The Gaslight Anthem's The '59 Sound. The records, while of similar quality level could scarcely be more different: 808s is all depressive, paranoid truths, delivered with an appropriately alien and synthetic musical backdrop; it's harsh at points but altogether necessary and, despite its frigidness, it finds pockets of warmth within heartache that make it, ultimately, a life-affirming release. The '59 Sound, by contrast, feels like a musical postcard from a time that, if it ever existed at all, is long gone and, as such, it's all warm, mushy nostalgia and heart-on-sleeve working class sentiments backed up by fittingly scrappy, but never mean or overly aggressive, guitar rock. Why draw this comparison? More to say that, above everything else, music comes in all shapes, sizes and levels of quality, which are not mutually exclusive to one another, and The Gaslight Anthem come from a very specific musical place that might not appeal to all but certainly has a distinct legacy behind it.
The obvious start point for The Gaslight Anthem is Bruce Springsteen, more specifically, the Springsteen of Born To Run and prior, before the cynicism set in and he was creating grand lyrical mosaics out of everyday life. Certainly, that characterization checks out (hell, "Meet Me By The River's Edge" includes the lyric "no surrender/my Bobby Jean") but there seems to be a slowly developing sub-genre of bands like this and it's rather an exciting prospect. It hasn't been termed yet termed yet, but all these groups share a general aesthetic: soulful, grown-man vocals, alternately twinkling or clacking guitars, working class subject matter, at least two of the band members looking like auto mechanics, punk-ish energy/enthusiasm, an affinity for cleaned-up 50's nostalgia, slight nods to old-school country and the lead singer having a penchant for hair grease and sleeve tattoos. Other examples of this "movement": The Loved Ones, Bad Religion (sometimes), Social Distortion (at their least emo) , This Charming Man, Against Me! (at their least shout-y).
The Gaslight Anthem, then, while certainly not the first band to do this sort of thing, are the best at it for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they're the band who has most fully stripped away the harshness and meanness of their punk rock roots, while not abandoning the energy. If one were to term The '59 Sound as a "punk " record, it would be more in the Ramones sense (stripped-down, speedy musicality with an appreciation for pre-Beatles rock & roll) than in the Sex Pistols sense (outright rage/nihilism, with confrontational singing and lyrics) but even that isn't really accurate; it's far too cleanly produced (but, thankfully, retains grit and energy) and has a greater tonal range. Secondly, they're the band with the most naked heartland-rock fixation. Not just Springsteen, but Dylan and Petty (who gets a chorus name check in "Even Cowgirls Get The Blues") too. The guitar sounds, often interlocking in patterns which alternately jangle brightly or clatter like those beat-up car engines they love to sing about, are the biggest give away in that regard but check out the rock-solid, but deceptively complex, rhythm section and the clever use of non-rock sounds (the cabaret stand-up bass on "Film Noir", the clanging church bells on the title track, the brief scat-singing (!) interlude on "Great Expectations") for further evidence.
There's also the issue of those lyrics, which are the third factor putting the band above their competition. With a fair warning that if you don't have a sort of unreasonable nostalgia for an era you've never lived in, you probably won't go ga-ga over the band's shameless appropriation of 50's motifs. But, to those of a certain mindset, this is mana from heaven: they sing about sleeping on beaches and using pay phones, one chorus references "high-top sneakers", "sailor tattoos" and an "old '55", another contains a wish about looking "like Elvis", they speak in grand declarations like "I'll love you forever/if I ever love at all", they reference Audrey Hepburn and Marylin Monroe, the phrase "twist the night away" is used with no irony, they think Ferris Wheels and carnivals are the coolest things ever. One could go on indefinitely, but you get the idea. To be fair, the band does, on occasion, try to bring a bit of edge to this fuzzy-dice nostalgia trip (there's a semi-hardcore punk backup shout on "The Patient Ferris Wheel" and "High Lonesome" contains a line about "the powder on the bar") but those ultimately feel hollow, perhaps the last fleeting vestige of traditional punk being molted away. Of course, none of this would mean anything if the band didn't believe it; if they were winking or being ironic. But they seem to be 100% serious about this stuff, which is pretty commendable. In an era where being whiny/angry is almost a guarantee of success (whether in standard radio-rock or more MTV-friendly “emo”), it's great to hear a band with this much zest and enthusiasm (even if they have to reach back nearly 60 years to find it). Heck, even the ex-girlfriend ballad "Here's Looking At You, Kid" and the dead friend-tribute title track are delivered with faint smiles of fondness than agonized cries of pain and are much better for it.
Of course, even if you aren't convinced by the words here, these songs are impeccably written and performed and should convince by themselves. Ebbing and flowing at just the right points, tracks like "Film Noir" and "Old White Lincoln" have both breezy calms and swirling storms. "The Patient Ferris Wheel" and album-closer "The Backseat" are the most closely-allied with basic punk and, thus, have a tinge more aggression but still drip with warm romance. Slower numbers like the blues-tinged "Even Cowgirls Get The Blues" and the sparkling "Here's Looking At You, Kid" show the band's range. The record's biggest stunner, though, is "Casanova, Baby!" a rockabilly-ish, night-on-the-town number with great guitar work (dig that bridge!) and the album's best set of words ("every slow, mad song/is a night I'd like to spend with you”).
In the end, The '59 Sound is very much a regressive album; it doesn't try to advance any sort of music at all, it's almost stubbornly stuck in the past lyrically. But that's almost instantly forgivable because the band has written a great set of tunes which live up to their influences and because the lyrical sentiments, as overly nostalgic as they might be, are fun to get lost in. This album creates a world of beat-up classic cars, beaches at sunset, hotly anticipated county fairs, dancehalls filled with the sounds of 50's rock, charming, swooning boys in leather jackets and the beautiful, sundress-wearing girls who love them. It's a world where there's nothing that can't be fixed by a good, long drive or a dance with your sweetheart, where the only violence is when your friend knocks you out for making a pass at his girl (but you're still best buds after the ambulance arrives), where you can wash way all your problems with a dip in the river and where the daily grind of your job just gets you more ready for a late night of cruising along the open road.
It's a world that's pretty damned far in the past, if it ever even existed at all, but wouldn't it be nice if our world was a bit more like it?