The affinity I hold for the Gaslight Anthem has become difficult to explain. The success in which American Slang has propelled them to is as deserving as I’ve ever seen– an honest to goodness reception fitting for a band so entrenched in the working class ethos they have extolled since 2007’s Sink Or Swim. They spoke like Springsteen, sang songs the way Kerouac wrote, and held strong the values of American rock n’ roll. They were in every respect, the great American band for the current generation. American Slang is an album endlessly rich, the albatross on which they will undoubtedly fly to immeasurable heights with.
Yet, in a strange sense, the success and global reception almost works against the fables they preach. How does one relate to living the hard life when you’re at Glastonbury amongst a hundred thousand strong? Does singing about just getting by lose some of its romanticism when you’re on the cover of a glossy magazine? I never really understood why so many people were in uproar when Dylan first plugged in– maybe I still don’t, but I guess a small part of me compels the question of how an unruffled soul connects to something almost solely written for someone below the line. Is there a greater understanding of certain artists and genres when all of which it celebrates is very much part of who you are?
An educated and well-versed music enthusiast can certainly understand and appreciate various styles, genres, and histories and still remain distant, but will they ever connect to the music the same way as someone who lives a life parallel to the artist does? I’m not sure, but I know that when I listen to Born to Run, I have a far greater connection to it than when I listen to The Rising. So when The Gaslight Anthem start playing stadiums (a very good possibility than I’m actually not against at all), will the music mean the same as when I saw them play in front of 100 people in a small, broken down backpacker hotel on a sweaty August night? People who saw Springsteen in 1972 and then saw him again post-1984 may have that answer.
In the June 2010 issue of Big Cheese Magazine, they describe American Slang as “the pain of a broken heart, salvation from the radio and love by the lights of the bar. The record is a perfect marriage of expert storytelling, superb musicianship and classic melodies.” It is an apt assessment and among the many reasons why it is such a good album. Brian Fallon has traded in his crunchy riffs of The ’59 Sound for more bluesy guitar licks, dropping references to Maria while expanding his already excellent grasp of creating perfect blue collar rock songs. You will be hard pressed to find a writer who is able to inject his music with actual, down to earth substance better than Fallon. It’s genuine, all of it. And my favorite part about it all is that no matter where I’ve traveled and what I’ve seen, there is some intangible connection to the music that will resonate differently for each and every listener. It’s a murky theory I know, and I don’t have the vocabulary to explain it, but with every listen of the closing “We Did It When We Were Young”, I am reminded of life up to this point and I am hit with endless contemplation and reflection. It’s not about whether or not they wrote this song with any such intention, it’s just that it is powerful enough to do so.
Strangely, I feel less compelled to talk about the actual songs themselves; there are many rock critics and writers who will do a far greater job at explaining or justifying the praise with connections to Dylan, Strummer, Miles Davis, and of course, Springsteen. They’ll tell you about the great literary references, the homage to the great cities and trails, and the many emotional highs and lows as painted by the chord progressions and melodies. But for me, it is the lasting impression and continued connection they’ve painted since I first heard them in 2007; that life’s greatest reward comes from an unforgettable journey regardless of the final chapter. It reminds me of the many great pages left to write, and that filling them through your time here is the only reason why we should wake up every day. It does not resonate emotionally (save the closing track) as much as The ’59 Sound does, but it continues to do the greatest thing a band/an album/a song can do for me. The past is part of who you are, the present reminds us of this, and the future will always be unwritten. It is the only part of their music I hope they keep intact no matter where they go and what they do.