Spread the word around: The Boss is back in town. Wherever you turn these days, some feisty crew is channeling the hungry-hearted spirit of Bruce Springsteen. Titus Andronicus, the Hold Steady, Against Me!, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists-each takes vital inspiration from America’s bar-band bard, applying his eye for detail and knack for rousing choruses to brainy tales of postgraduate alienation, Catholic girls gone wild, and the geopolitical tumult that one day may leave us all dancing in the dark.
None of Bruce’s boys, though, seem as indebted to the Springsteen Thing as Brian Fallon of the Gaslight Anthem. Bearing greetings from New Brunswick, New Jersey-not far from the Boss’ Asbury Park stomping grounds-Fallon and his bandmates emerged in 2007 with Sink or Swim, a promising slab of soul-drunk punk that played like a refresher course on nine-to-five frustration. (Surprise-shit still sucks.) The ’59 Sound, from 2008, had better songs and more romance, with a cars-and-music title cut so convincing that Springsteen actually joined the Gaslights onstage at Glastonbury last year.
Fallon doesn’t employ his hero’s methods as a means of salting his hipster-class dispatches; he’s a real people’s-poet type, pounding the dirty Jersey pavement in search of that runaway American dream. That his internal GPS reads Indieland (rather than Arenaville) is less afunction of ambition or talent than of circumstance: Unless you’re Chris Daughtry or the dude from Nickelback, blue-collar guitar guys don’t stand much chance in a world Lady Gaga was born to run.
Fortunately, the Gaslight Anthem went ahead and made a killer arena-rock album anyway. American Slang sticks to the template Fallon’s been hammering away at since the band’s beginning; its stories star the same kind of characters and its garage-punk sound still sparkles with flashes of Motown and R&B. (In “Bring It On,” the singer punctuates an ode to his “queen of the Bronx” with a quote from “Please Mr. Postman.”) But the disc represents a serious upgrade in attack-it’s wilder, more innocent, and altogether shufflier than its predecessors. “Give me the fevers that just won’t break,” Fallon demands in “Bring It On,” and that seems like his MO here.
You can tell the last two years have been big ones for Fallon. On American Slang, people are always going somewhere (or thinking about going somewhere). “Orphans” is a breakneck barn burner in which he bids farewell to the “faithless factories” of his “fair-weather home,” while “Old Haunts” finds him telling an ex, “Don’t sing me your songs about the good times?/ Those days are gone and you should just let ‘em go.” Of course, like any good dead-ender, he can’t help second-guessing his exit. “In the morning we’ll start over again,” he sings atop a needling Replacements-like riff in “The Spirit of Jazz.” “That’s how they do it up on the screen.”
When he’s not coming or going, Fallon chews some excellent scenery, observing “steam heat pour[ing] from the bodies on the floor” in “The Diamond Church Street Choir” and pointing out in “The Queen of Lower Chelsea” that “American girls, they want every last little light in New York City.” Just like Bruce, though, he’s best when stakes are high. “Them old records won’t be saving your soul,” he sings in “Stay Lucky.” Maybe not-but this new one might save somebody’s.