The Gaslight Anthem’s music has the feel of a lovingly restored artifact. From the Miles Davis shout-outs to the Wizard of Oz references to this album’s cover, which boasts having been “recorded in full frequency stereo sound,” this is a band that draws upon ghosts of the past in order to express the spirit of the present. Critics say they lack ingenuity and thus lack heart, but that’s not the case. This band of Americana-bred punk rockers is fist-pumpingly, tears-in-their-eyes sincere, with the songs to show it. (Having talked to them at length after their last show in Kansas City, I can also confirm they are some of the nicest human beings alive.) On American Slang, they lose the old-time haze of The ’59 Sound but keep the overtones of nostalgia, resulting in a record as visceral and modern as it is heartfelt.
“American Slang” is a no-brainer opener. A catchy guitar lick broadens into a mythologizing of youth and life and love: “And they cut me to ribbons and taught me to drive/I got your name tattooed inside of my arm” (possibly true: lead singer Brian Fallon’s arms are both heavily inked). And the kicker: “You told me fortunes/in American slang.” Like a younger, brasher Steinbeck, Fallon is a compelling poet for the average man. “Stay Lucky” and “Bring It On” are, likewise, vigorous up-tempo anthems, less immediately gripping but with just as much staying power. The rest of the album’s first side diversifies. The swagger of “The Diamond Church Street Choir” and the groove of “The Queen of Lower Chelsea” show the band inching out of their comfort zone and succeeding wildly.
The record’s second side is more prototypical Gaslight Anthem, which is good and bad. At their worst the songs becomes too comfy, too complacent (“Orphans”). But at their best they exude an unhinged, raucous energy never reached on previous albums: the savage, soaring chorus of “Old Haunts,” and the joyful, rhythmic bounce of “Boxer.” Closer “We Did It When We Were Young” is perfectly placed. A fragile, slow-burning ballad, it evokes the aching nostalgia about which Fallon so often sings from a unique angle and with renewed poeticism. “When we were liars/lovers in combat,” a bittersweet Fallon reminisces, “But I am older now/And we did it…when we were young.” By its end, the song is a rapturous, full-band sing-a-long that washes away the album’s brief missteps, leaving only joy.
The Gaslight Anthem are becoming more self-assured with each release. They’re developing a sound all their own, one that transcends their influences, much to the chagrin of those who have so long enjoyed calling them Bruce Springsteen meets Against Me! Fallon’s voice is developing rapidly in both power and diversity. The guitar playing is growing more intricate, catchier, more artful and earnest. And, of course, however good these songs sound coming out of your car (or – dare I say it? – turntable) speakers, they will sound a thousand times better live, in person, with the band on stage and hundreds of sweaty bodies around yours, all singing along.