The second half of “American Slang” is a more back-to-basics affair. Sturdy, simple rockers are the story here, but that doesn’t mean their impact is lessened at all.
None of the songs on “American Slang” are quite as heavy as those from the band’s debut, 2007’s “Sink or Swim,” but “Orphans” comes the closest. Led by drummer Benny Horowitz’s hammerfist of a beat, this steamroller recalls such tracks as “Wooderson” or “Drive.”
Thematically this is a keystone moment on “American Slang,” as it contains perhaps the most important line on the entire album: “The clothes I wore just don’t fit my soul anymore.” At first this notion was scary for me, because it seems to repudiate everything Brian Fallon’s done to this point in his career and thus potentially jeopardizes everything I’ve come to know and love about this band. “So you can find some local libertine, to take your daughters out on the town.” That, too, seems to fly in the face of Gaslight staples like “Say I Won’t (Recognize),” “Miles Davis & the Cool,” and “We Came to Dance.”
There’s more to this story, though, and the very next lines are some of the most personal and important on the entire record:
’Cause I could feel it in my bones, the sound of the rain mixes up
and filled the fountains where I drank my hero’s blood
so I left you to find my own hatful of rain
and now I’m trying to keep it straight, learning all the streets and alleyways
and learning where they lead now that I’m left alone to drive
but it’s so hard to stand on your own, against mirror glass hard and cold
but the clothes I wore just don’t fit my soul anymore
Taken in full context, then, that last line is sung by an artist on the move. In the early days of the band, these four Jersey punks were just writing what they knew, combining everything they loved about their musical heroes and putting their own twist on it. But as he sings in the chorus: “We were orphans before we were ever the sons of those songs.”
Sure they all love Springsteen, and Strummer, and Petty, and Vedder, and Waits, and Davis, and Cooke, and all the rest. But where you’re from and whom you love shouldn’t define you. At some point, Fallon seems to be saying here, you have to stand up on your own, decide who you’re going to be, and make your own mark. “American Slang” is The Gaslight Anthem doing just that. It may be difficult—for the band and its fans—but ultimately it will be better for everyone.
“Boxer” is a peppy power-pop/punk track that livens up the center of the album at the exact right time. It’s not one of my favorites, but I never skip it, either—it’s akin to “Old White Lincoln” in that way.
The title is a metaphor that winds through the entire song, referring to a tough sonofagun who always was able to take whatever punishment life dishes out and kept getting back up off the mat, finding “bandages inside the pen/and the stitches on the radio.” In this sense, lyrically “Boxer” is the closest song to the earlier records, returning to Fallon’s well-employed radio metaphors. It also has a callback to the song “The ’59 Sound” in the line: “Remember that song and the reasons that we were singing for.”
The “American Slang” theme of pulling yourself together and moving on returns here, along with the notion of loyalty. When Fallon sings, “I remember when I knew a boxer, baby,” I read that as an exhortation to a fallen comrade (or possibly to himself?): I knew you when you were tough and great and never let the world get the best of you, and I believe you can be that man again. Once again, Fallon deals hopefully with weighty issues; he acknowledges the hardships but doesn’t leave this character alone on the mat.
Here’s a follow-up to the discussion begun in “Orphans.” “Don’t sing me your songs about the good times/those days are gone and you should just let ’em go.” Huh? That’s basically the entire Gaslight Anthem catalog to this point!
As is the case with so many songs on this album, though, Fallon tweaks the meaning right at the end. The last lines go: “Shame on you/you kept your mind and heart and youth just like a tomb.” To me, that says treading on and/or mourning the past is not healthy and acting like a kid well into adulthood leads to nothing but emptiness. Everyone grows up, and those who embrace it and find their own way to reconcile their youthful vigor and dreams with current, practical realities are the ones who get it right. Your “old haunts are for forgotten ghosts.” They shouldn’t be “all you’ve ever known” because, if so, you’re robbing yourself of the full tapestry of experiences life has to offer. Let it go.
All this plays out over Gaslight’s first foray into midtempo classic rock, straight out of the Tom Petty School of Breaking Hearts. The crunchy lead riff could’ve been written by Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard, and there’s even a few piano fills scattered through the background. Fallon, meanwhile, explores the lower range of his voice in a way he’s never done before, almost donning an old-man persona befitting the subject matter.
“The Spirit of Jazz”
Once again, Fallon answers the questions of one song with the lyrics of another. “The Spirit of Jazz” is one of the most obviously uplifting, affirming songs on the record, both in word and melody, as this speedy cut plays like a cousin to “High Lonesome.”
For a long time I pondered the seeming randomness of the title, which appears nowhere in the lyrics. Here’s my final answer: Like jazz musicians who make it up as they go along, so lovers do, too, as they learn “the steps in my baby’s time.” The singer’s reached a turning point in his life (“the cool is dead”), but all this means is a chance that “maybe in the morning we’ll start over again.”
This is another song of commitment trumping mistakes. The singer wonders, “Was I good to you the wife of my youth?”, but follows with: “Not another soul could love you like my rotten bones do.” If you really want to go down the rabbit hole, it’s not that difficult to envision this as the outcome of the struggle in “Bring It On.”
“We Did It When We Were Young”
This was my least favorite track upon first listen, and nothing’s changed in a month. It feels more forced than anything else on the record, intentionally stark and “moody” in such a way that it’s almost melodramatic. It’s the kind of heavy-handed bombast even U2 has a hard time pulling off consistently, and The Gaslight Album don’t have that level of gravitas (yet).
Part of it, too, is placement. Had “We Did It When We Were Young” been a transitional element somewhere inside the record, it might be more palatable. But holding the all-important final spot, its grandiose gestures feel all the more exaggerated (I felt the same way about U2’s “Cedars of Lebanon” from their last album).
I don’t dislike this song, though, and its grown on me with every listen. It nicely ties up several threads running through “American Slang,” most notably the ideas of owning up to your past, accepting—not ignoring—mistakes, and moving on. (Though I could argue “The Spirit of Jazz” covers this ground just as well, and would’ve closed the album on a more appropriately positive note.) Musically it’s not all bad, but just a half step too far. On an album that takes as many aggressive steps forward as “American Slang,” though, something like this was bound to happen and is easily overlooked.
“She Loves You”
This exclusive iTunes track is without question worth your 99 cents (stop reading and buy it right now!). It’s one more experiment in another genre; much like “Diamond Church,” Gaslight didn’t bother this time filtering country through punk rock and instead just wrote a good ol’, down-home campfire singalong.
Musically this would have been a better choice to close the record than “When We Were Young,” as it feels more organic with simple handclaps, choir-like choruses, and barely-there guitar work. But thematically I understand why it was left off the official release. It’s more of a throwback to “The ’59 Sound” style of Fallon’s writing, with a tale of a Romeo “putting all of his burdens/Into them sermons” and Juliet “smoking by the window,” all the while “raindrops in the cars/Keep on falling from off the bars/Blocking out a good song/Playing on the radio.” When Fallon says it’d be easy for him to rewrite “The ’59 Sound,” this is what he’s talking about.
While it doesn’t quite fit the rest of “American Slang,” I’m quite glad we have it. “She Loves You” is a wonderful little song (and an improvement over “Once Upon a Time,” the bonus track from the last record).
Tomorrow: The Springsteen Conundrum