“Look what you started, I seem to be coming out of my skin,” howls Brian Fallon on the first two lines of The Gaslight Anthem’s third album, American Slang. But rather than coming out of their skin, New Jersey’s newest rock heroes seem to be more comfortable in it on the follow up to their 2008 widely acclaimed The ’59 Sound.
Ringing endorsements from the musical establishment can be a curse for many young bands. So after finding themselves on numerous year-end best of lists and joined on stage by Bruce freakin’ Springsteen in front of 90,000 screaming Brits, it was only natural to question what the band would do for an encore.
Rather than shying away from the attention or the influences the band wears on its sleeve, American Slang seems the logical progression of Jersey punks reared on classic rock and Stax soul. Gone are the namedropping and lyrical quoting, replaced by songs that pay tribute to heroes as obvious as Springsteen and Strummer and as subtle as Redding and Cooke.
The album kicks off with the title track, which after a brief buildup kicks into gear with a chiming guitar attack that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album. “Stay Lucky” is what the similarly-lauded Replacements would have released in their bid for stardom in the 80’s if they weren’t such mean drunks. Then the album takes a few turns into new, though familiar territory.
“Bring It On” features a slow buildup to an anthemic chorus, along with liberal use of Phil Spector-era girl group backing vocals. “The Diamond Church Street Choir” is the album’s centerpiece and the closest the band has come to an actual soul song, with Fallon using a Van Morrison affectation that stretches the range of his low growl. “The Queen of Lower Chelsea” layers vocals and wandering lead guitar over a slow-burn rhythm track that is at times reminiscent of the Clash’s experiments with dub and reggae.
The band handles the genre stretches with great aplomb, with Fallon and Alex Rosamilla’s clean guitar lines standing out from the muddle of so many punk mixes. Bassist Alex Levine and drummer Benny Horowitz provide a solid rhythmic backbone that shows they too have grown from their New Brunswick roots.
Fallon’s lyrics still tread heavily in Springsteen street poetry, though Jersey has largely been replaced by his new home of New York. The writing is more personal than ever as Fallon looks back on a journey of self-discovery that has taken him to the verge of rock stardom. “The clothes I wore just don’t fit my soul anymore,” he notices on “Orphans.” Later, Fallon asks, “Was I good to you, the wife of my youth?” of a woman who’s clearly not the romanticized Maria of previous albums.
American Slang closes with the haunting, atmospheric “We Did It When We Were Young”, which sees Fallon harmonizing with himself. The track would never have fit in with the punk bashers of previous albums, and highlights a band that continues to move forward while strongly trading in a past that belongs to both them and their heroes.