When the Hold Steady sing, “Half the crowd is calling out for ‘Born to Run’ / The other half is calling out for ‘Born to Lose’”, they’re describing a scene of conflict, one in which two camps with competing ideals show little interest in finding a middle ground between Springsteen and Social Distortion. It’s probably a line the Hold Steady, who know a thing or two about taking anthemic rock into indie clubs, have toed more successfully than most. A growing crop of bands, though, take spiritual guidance from heartland rockers like Springsteen, even if they leave some of the sound behind in favor of their own punk energy and melodicism inspired by bands like the Clash or Thin Lizzy. Bands like the Gaslight Anthem see these seemingly at-odds influences in their record collections and their songs and think, “Where’s the problem?”
The Gaslight Anthem are no strangers to a Springsteen comparison (even before the Boss joined the band onstage at this year’s Glastonbury Festival, sealing the deal for some). Their New Jersey roots are a factor, but you can’t help noticing that their songs also hold their fair share of cars, old girlfriends, and nostalgia. Heck, they even name-checked a couple of Springsteen songs on 2008’s breakout The ‘59 Sound. Singer/lyricist Brian Fallon stretches the seams of the band’s songs with deft wordplay and colorful imagery, so even if the Gaslight Anthem might not have the swing of the E Street Band (in favor of their own backbeat-fueled rock energy), their songs find similar inspiration in everyday people, places, and memories.
The Gaslight Anthem’s nostalgia, though, doesn’t always glow with romanticism. “Old Haunts” (arguably American Slang‘s centerpiece) proclaims, “so don’t sing me your songs about the good times / Those days are gone and you should just let them go / God help the man who says, ‘If you’d have known me when’” before becoming even more accusing: “Shame, shame, shame, shame on you, you kept your mind and heart and youth just like a tomb.” Fallon often looks to the past for inspiration (as the very name of The ‘59 Sound attests), but often does so with full knowledge that memory is unreliable. In one of The ‘59 Sound‘s standout tracks, “Here’s Looking at You, Kid”, the narrator asks a friend to relay messages to past loves who probably have a very different view of how things went down. “On American Slang, the band’s attitude towards the past seems less charitable. “Orphans” charges out of the gate proclaiming, “Goodbye circus wheel, may you rest along the seas / Well, I have given you the fire of my youth and the triumph of my enemies / And goodbye fair-weather home and your faithless factories / I have given you the blood and the truth from the wounds that they made on me.”
Lyrics like that, and the intensity with which they’re presented, immediately put the Gaslight Anthem in that rare class of bands that a listener can believe in. American Slang, like much of the band’s music, bristles with energy—energy that it would be simplistic to call “angry”. Rather, the Gaslight Anthem are impassioned, launching their way through their music and lyrics utter sincerity. Besides, it’s hard to be angry young men when you can feel your youth slipping away, and even American Slang‘s least nostalgic-tinted tracks—such as the gently shifting “please stay” argument of “Bring it On”—still feel the weight of years and emotions invested.
Even so, they shift out of fifth gear every once in a while. This resulted in ‘59 Sound highlights like “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” and “Here’s Looking at You, Kid”, and provides some intriguing respites here. “The Diamond Church Street Choir” is pure Springsteen sidewalk shuffle, full of cool half-jazz guitar licks and finger-snapping while Fallon reaches soul groaner territory as he belts out his vocals. “The Queen of Lower Chelsea” is spry but subdued, and “We Did It When We Were Young” gives the album a coda full of anguish and distance.
American Slang is a big step forward for the Gaslight Anthem, showing more consistency and ambition than The ‘59 Sound. Naysayers might point to them as a band that’s found its niche, and is content to explore all the nooks and crannies of that niche. But a good listen to the way sharp guitars weave their way through the songs, or to the way drummer Benny Horowitz lays down lockstep rhythms that hearken back to a kind of rock ‘n’ roll that not made much anymore, and it’s obvious that the Gaslight Anthem are hammering away at something important. If not for them, then for a lot of us who love straightforward, ragged-soul rock ‘n’ roll.