I have a soft spot in my heart for bands that wear their influences proudly. The Gaslight Anthem are definitely one of those bands – hell, it seems like one out of every four lines on their second album, The 59 Sound, was directly lifted from Springsteen. I’m definitely okay with anyone who honors the Boss, and you could obviously do much worse than using some of his lyrics, but I felt they needed move beyond that.
American Slang does just that: pushing forward, but looking backward. This isn’t just an album that trades in nostalgia, it’s an album about nostalgia. Many of the songs deal with the way we view the past through rose-colored glasses and bemoan the loss of some wasn’t-ever-really-real golden age. Most of the lyrics are written in the past tense, and everything from the song titles (“The Spirit of Jazz” and “We Did It When We Were Young” spring to mind) to the cultural references and touchstones (references to Sinatra and “old records”) seems to hearken back to a bygone era. The themes of the music aren’t anything new for the band – they’ve been trading on this nostalgia for the swingin’ ’50s New York City era since their inception – but they’ve perfected their Boss-meets-Sinatra balance of sincere and earnest street poet and street-smart, tough-as-nails backstreet kid.
Vocalist Brian Fallon is in strong form on the record, though he tries to reach beyond his range in a couple of noticeable places. His rough, everyman voice works well for these story songs, and the E Street Band circa The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle backing vocals are the perfect complement. Guitars alternately chime and growl, and the swinging, muted jabs on “The Diamond Church Street Choir” are perfect. The band tries some new sounds here, too, throwing in dub-inflected rhythms on “The Queen of Lower Chelsea.” This isn’t to say the band’s abandoned the driving, anthematic sound that defined their previous songs. Those are still here in spades (“Get Lucky” being the best and most obvious representative), though the band isn’t afraid to slow the rhythm section down a bit and let the song roll along at a less breakneck but no less enjoyable pace. The opening track, “American Slang,” is a perfect example; the band let the song build and still retain the anthematic feel without sacrificing melody or a fantastic build. The band feels tighter overall on this record; previous outings featured at least a track or two where things didn’t quite feel like they synced up, but that isn’t the case here.
The opening four tracks on the album – “American Slang,” “Stay Lucky,” “Bring It On,” and “The Diamond Church Street Choir” – are probably the best opening salvo on a record I’ve heard all year. In fact, it’s often hard for me to get to the back half of the record because I keep going back to hear those four songs over and over again. The album does lose some momentum on the back side, though it never loses its sense of purpose or driving rhythms.
American Slang is easily one of the best albums I’ve heard all year and avoids many of the pitfalls I feared the band would hit trying to follow up their breakout record. Definitely recommended.