“American Slang” is so good—so consistently solid—from start to finish, it makes choosing a favorite song nearly impossible. And once made, that selection will most likely change from listen to listen, and day to day, from week to week, and year to year.
It is a brilliant piece of work, and I’m going to take all this week to try and explain why, starting with, where else …
I wasn’t overly thrilled when this track was released in March as the album’s first single, but it’s grown on me with time and context. Upon hearing the full album, I can’t imagine another song for the intro; it deserves title track status for setting the right tone, from the pulsing first few bars to the explosive choruses and everything in between. The old-school sound is gone, and in its place is a full-on guitar barrage. Its midtempo stomp lends itself a bit more toward the pop sensibilities on this record, though this song has more punk edge to it than “Bring It On.”
More than anything, “American Slang” is polished in a way few Gaslight tracks prior have been (an exception: “Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis?”). A layered song like this doesn’t get slapped down in a day (I presume). They took a bit more time in the studio this time around (a month instead of two weeks), and the intricacies of this opener show the workmanship as clearly as the tattoos on Brian Fallon’s arms.
In the “Making of American Slang” online featurette, Fallon says the lyrics here summarize everything he’s trying to say with this record: that the American Dream doesn’t always work out for everyone (the irony of that statement coming from a guy who’s living proof of that same American Dream I’ll deal with later). I say this track is a signpost that The Gaslight Anthem aren’t out to just rehash their old sound and style.
I love “Stay Lucky,” but I love its placement almost as much. This is one track from “American Slang” that would slide just fine into “The ’59 Sound,” right down to the reverb on Fallon’s vocals (it reminds most of “High Lonesome”). Had it opened the record, though, “Stay Lucky” may have been a red herring that Gaslight was going after more of the same. The exact opposite is true, of course, but “Stay Lucky” demonstrates the band hasn’t forgotten where they came from (a notion shared more explicitly a couple tracks later). Fallon says they weren’t interested in writing “The ’59 Sound” all over again, and I wholeheartedly agree with the choice. But that doesn’t mean a refresher course like “Stay Lucky” isn’t nice, and welcome jumpstart to the first half of the record.
This is a perfect counterpart to the title track lyrically, as well. Where the first song deals with disillusionment, “Stay Lucky” provides an answer to the problem: OK, so life didn’t work out quite like you thought. Get over it. Stop “pacing around and waiting/for some moment that might never arrive at all.” Take control. Be proactive. Recapture the vitality you had “when you were young” and put it to good, grown-up use. Because “what you don’t have, you don’t need it anymore …” This message runs throughout the album and is vitally important in Fallon’s subtle, yet crucial avoidance of cynicism.
“Bring It On”
This is the purest pop song Fallon’s written for Gaslight. “Bring It On” is one of the “big” moments on “American Slang” in every sense of the word: big sound, big choruses, big subject matter. And yet “Bring It On” gets quiet enough in spots to let you hear the bongo work and background vocals straight out of the ’60s.
This song exemplifies the album’s themes of maturity and realism; here Fallon addresses real love, the kind you have to work at when the infatuation is over—“stop clicking your red heels and wishing for home.” Rather than answering his lover’s wayward eye with venom, the singer responds with bravado: You think he’ll love you more than me? I’ll take that challenge, baby. Bring it on. Though the subject matter is tough, again, the overall impact is one of strength, hope, and commitment.
“Bring It On” is antithetical to the themes on “The ’59 Sound,” right down to name-checking “the cool he sings you in those songs”—like he’s singing about himself from the last record. There’s no throwing stones at a girl’s window here; the romance comes and goes, but “the fevers that just won’t break” are always there. It strikes me as a bit too harsh a judgment on the last album, and makes me wonder how Fallon can play this song and “Miles Davis & the Cool” in the same set. But I guess that’s his problem.
The only thing I don’t like about “Bring It On” is the way Fallon sings the opening line—it’s a bit too dramatic and forced. Otherwise, “Bring It On” is one of the band’s best songs.
“The Diamond Church Street Choir”
For those following along at home, this is where it becomes clear “American Slang” is a great album. Rather than singing about soul music, or trying to filter it through punk rock, Fallon & Co. just go ahead and do it themselves here, right down to the finger snaps and the swinging beat. Fallon stretches his vocal cords to their high-note limit as he croons about never forgetting where he’s from and how much those sweaty Jersey bars mean to him, no matter how famous he gets or where he chooses to live. Consider:
We might of moved away from home and slept out there on our own
A million miles away in a storm
But the beat never leaves and the tempo’s a relief
To my aching bones rambling all over
But if I’m gone for too long I can always hum along
This isn’t just the best song on “American Slang,” but also its gutsiest. Going full-on R&B could’ve failed miserably; instead it’s one of the triumphs of their young career. Utterly unexpected, utterly wonderful, this song is a game-changer—the kind of cut that sets Gaslight apart from their peers.
“The Queen of Lower Chelsea”
“The Queen of Lower Chelsea” completes the most diverse side of any Gaslight record. The song to me sounds immediately of The Clash when they, too, were stepping out of their punk box and striving for something even greater. The snake-charming main riff is unlike anything heard before in a Gaslight song, and it provides the backbone for one of Fallon’s best vocal and lyrical performances. It’s not so much the singing—because he sorta talks his way through this one—it’s more the way he delivers these lines that’s most arresting. Everything’s a bit off-kilter, playing around the beat. And the lines, wow. This is one of my favorite sections of any Gaslight song:
Did you grow up a good girl, your daddy’s pride
Did you make all the right moves, take all the right drugs, right on time?
American girls, they want the whole world
They want every last little light in New York City
In the final chorus he adds a Tom Waits-ish background vocal—much like “The Blues, Mary”—that goes like this: “Where thou die I shall die, and there they shall bury me.” Some message-board sleuths discovered this is a Bible reference from Ruth 1:17. The rest of that verse (in the NIV), reads: “May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”
I see “The Queen of Lower Chelsea” as a more mature version of “Here’s Looking at You, Kid” from the last record. Where that one was playful and teasing about missed opportunities, “Chelsea” is serious chastisement. I hesitate to break these lyrics down too deeply because Fallon strikes me as the type of songwriter who likes to play with words and phrases that sound good together, and doesn’t always worry so much about their literal meaning (supposedly he took the line “We hustle in London” from a T-shirt he saw). The sense I get from this song, though, is a girl who chased the supposed idyllic American Dream to her own detriment. Instead of selling her soul for the big brass ring, perhaps she may have ultimately been happier living a quiet, simpler life with people who love her for who she is, not who she tried to become.
This could have been a vindictive, I-told-you-so track. But, again, Fallon rescues it from the edge of despair by employing the Bible verse. To me, that shows the singer still loves the woman he’s singing about (friendly or romanctic, doesn’t really matter), and remains committed to her, no matter how many mistakes she’s made. This theme of accepting mistakes and moving on runs throughout the record, culminating in the final track, “We Did It When We Were Young.”
I still waver on whether “Lower Chelsea” is a great song or just a really good one. Either way, it’s the type of song only a band striving for greatness has the balls to write.
Tomorrow: Side Two