Review Summary: On Sink or Swim The Gaslight Anthem creates the sound they're now known for, but they never did it in the same way.
Sink or Swim came out of nowhere for many, and it sounds like it came out of nowhere. Although their next two albums (and another on the way) have gained them quite a bit of popularity and defined the Gaslight Anthem sound, songs like "We Came To Dance" and "I'da Called You Woody, Joe" rank high among their best. In fact, the album as a whole, though heavier than the next two, is remarkably consistent and shouldn't be ignored. Although on Sink or Swim you can hear elements of both The '59 Sound and American Slang, neither feature the same pounding drums, powerful guitar, or lyrical brilliance as this one.
Sink or Swim says a lot of the same things they're known for so often saying, but it finds a way to do it with more anger and power. The Gaslight Anthem make it clear that they have many influences and they don't try to hide it, but in the end they create something completely their own. Brian Fallon's voice is ragged but so is the music, and songs like 'Red In The Morning" or "Drive" with their forceful, strong sound manage to sound like they could explode at any time. What's more is that every song seems to reach its own climax, and as they do, Brian's lyrics reach new heights; recalling personal experiences and creating equally brilliant new ones.
All of Brian's lyrics sound important because it's clear how important they are to him. They often sound like they're just on the verge of becoming nostalgic memories ("I was a boy on the lawn, with his eyes to the sky/You were garbo, smoke, and deceit.") but he doesn't want them to be ("I'll never forget/and don't you forget/these nights are still ours"). The music and lyrics form a near perfect combination, with more forceful guitars to suit angrier feelings, or slower, more heartfelt acoustic songs to evoke feelings of sadness or regret, or both. These songs can be just as heartbreaking as they were intended to be.
It's possible to get too caught up in the sheer fun of these songs to notice how well put together they are. Every chorus bursts, occasionally topped off with surprising harmonies or bridges that erupt suddenly. On top of this it's never even remotely boring. Every song builds and evolves to keep things interesting, and the perfectly placed changes of pace bring diversity. New instruments are used from time to time, and Brian plays harmonica on one track (quite well, actually) to accompany the simple but effective acoustic guitar playing. They also consistently try new things with the instruments they use most often, with varying guitar leads and falsetto singing from time to time. The mix of great songwriting and diverse playing benefit the album by helping create the distinct Gaslight Anthem sound that is so familiar today.
The '59 Sound and American Slang are different albums, they're slower and the anger that is so present in these songs seems to have disappeared. But it's easy to see how those two albums evolved from this one, and you can see more than just a glimpse of the sound they've now perfected. Brian says exactly what he wants to say. The music does the same, always slowly building up to something great, and when it gets there it never once stops.