One of the finer albums of rock ’n’ roll music that has emerged from this millennium is “The ’59 Sound,” the 2008 release from The Gaslight Anthem. Dripping with silver-tinged nostalgia, full of memories of nights at drive-in theaters in classic cherry-red convertibles, it performed all the tasks that good rock music should: wistful looks back into the past, hopeful ruminations on the future and homage to our predecessors.
The Gaslight Anthem broke up last summer. Though their two most recent albums — “Handwritten” and “Get Hurt” — regressed from the expectation set by “The ’59 Sound” and “American Slang,” it was a blow to the rock scene, where the Irish-twinkling, arm-tattooed frontman Brian Fallon has inspired something of a messianic fervor. And though his band is no more, Fallon has decided to continue. His new release, “Painkillers,” is a move beyond the dripping turgidity of The Gaslight Anthem’s last two albums; perhaps Fallon will regain his title as the oldest newfound savior of rock ’n’ roll.
I say that in jest. Fallon has always struggled to emerge from the shadow of that other great New Jersey rocker — Bruce Springsteen, of course. The parallels are easy enough to draw. Fallon’s from New Brunswick, Springsteen from Asbury Park; their music hums with working-class spirit, all gravelly vocals and worn-out melodies. Fallon performed with Springsteen at Hyde Park in 2010: The sliding guitars of “No Surrender,” which they sang together, sounded like a coronation, and Fallon glowed with infectious joy on the second verse, singing on his own to tens of thousands.
The Gaslight Anthem devolved afterwards. Fallon seemed to have internalized his duty as the new Springsteen; his music grew tired and heavy-handed, void of the energy permeating “The ’59 Sound.” On “Get Hurt” and “Handwritten,” his voice never sounded up to the task. To call it rough around the edges would be a compliment. Fallon got divorced, hung out in New Brunswick, sold the flashy car he had bought himself after making it big — the red Corvette attracted too many looks around town, he said. And he emerged, two years later, with “Painkillers.”
Fallon has yet to rid himself of the urge to be Springsteen. But, being a Jersey rocker, perhaps it’s a natural, excusable one. And the opening chords of “A Wonderful Life,” the album’s first and best song, are indeed rather explicit homage to the rolling thunder of “Badlands,” but the former track doesn’t sound like it’s trapped in the Springsteen rut. Fallon fell victim to that trap on “Get Hurt,” but no longer. Those opening chords, almost a carnival jingle-jangle, brim with hope; he’s looking forward, not back. Whatever role Springsteen plays is strictly advisory.
And whereas Springsteen’s latter-day characters gazed back forlornly to the time they once knew — “The River” stared down the fire road to “Born to Run,” wondering where it all had gone wrong — “Painkillers” looks resolutely to the future. In “A Wonderful Life,” the sparkling opener, Fallon recounts all the hardships he’s endured, but now, he declares, it’s over. “I want a life on fire, going mad with desire,” he sings, or rather croaks. “I don’t want to survive, I want a wonderful life.” I don’t want to survive — if there was ever an anti-Springsteenian ethos, this is it, a refusal to merely endure but rather to seek out the good life. Springsteen’s characters hung their heads limply through the tumults of middle age. Fallon’s have no such intent.
Fallon and Springsteen are held together by a certain thread that pervades American culture: the vaunted blue-collar working class, dockworkers in Port Elizabeth, steel workers in Allentown, construction foremen in Utica. Springsteen portrayed this class so well in his music that romanticizing them proved unavoidable. Fallon is part of that working class; raised in Hackettstown, New Jersey, he has seen the realities of working-class life up close. And so his music makes no claims at pretense: rather, it’s court and matter-of-fact, eschewing the romantic working-class image that all too many singers — Billy Joel, anyone? — have fallen victim to.
The politics of this music, of course, cannot be ignored. The candidacy of Donald Trump for the Republican nomination for president is, in many ways, the last gasp of the working class, a final stand against the ever-encroaching fires of globalization. Springsteen is a lifelong liberal; his animus toward Ronald Reagan is a famous story, and he played “The Rising” at President Obama’s inauguration. But the irony is that his characters, now some 65 years old, would likely be Trump voters. They would hear in his speeches a call to reject the political system that had failed them, the two parties that cast them to the wayside as their national leaders debated the elites’ interests. If you want to understand Donald Trump, listen to “The River”: that’s where it all went wrong.
But maybe Fallon, in “Painkillers,” heralds a new age for that working class. Leave it all behind, he implores his lover: come with me, and we’ll make a new world for ourselves. Forget survival, and forget endurance. We’ll live, and we’ll be prosperous, perhaps not in wealth but in our communities, where we’ll weave a deep social fabric. The album’s title reads sardonically — the working class descended into OxyContin and heroin as the painkillers of its trauma, and must now find some new place in the contours of American society. Fallon’s album rejuvenates, and injects hope into a genre of music that had, quite frankly, worn out its welcome. Where he will go with that, we can only guess.