The Gaslight Anthem: Words to Rock By

Music Features The Gaslight Anthem
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When Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon took the theater stage in Germany a year ago, he was feeling pretty confident. By tapping into, and even name-checking in song, the working-class rock of his early idols Bob Seger, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen—who had joined the New Jersey group at Britain’s Glastonbury Festival in 2009, almost singlehandedly certifying its street cred—the singer had expanded his sound from bratty punk (2008’s The ’59 Sound) through a seamless, multi-genre blend (American Slang in 2010), to the beefy blues-riffed mix of 2012’s “Handwritten,” produced by none other than Springsteen’s longtime studio accomplice Brendan O’Brien. Fallon was justifiably proud of what he’d created. What could possibly go wrong?

But that’s when life’s little wakeup calls hit you—right when you least expect them. As Fallon looked out into the audience that fateful night, he was pleased to spot two familiar faces, diehard fans who had followed The Gaslight Anthem all over Europe, and now to Germany, too. “And I didn’t notice this at first, but I had said the word ‘radio’ a ton of times in all of our records,” he recalls with a self-deprecating chuckle. “And these people actually had number cards, and every time that I said ‘radio’ in the set, they would hold up a number. I think I got up to about 12, and I was like ‘Oh, my gosh! Wow! You need to read a book, dude!’ I never realized that I used certain words so often. But if other people noticed? I’ve got to get better at it.”

Right then and there, the artist decided to up his game for the quartet’s next record, the new Mike Crossey-produced Get Hurt. The more he studied his own catalog, the more recurrences he noticed of dark-minded phrases like “wounds.” So he analyzed his composing techniques to learn how such Fallon-isms occurred. “And it’s because the songs are isolated,” he has decided. “When I’m writing one song for a record, I don’t go and listen to the other songs to try and see how they correlate to each other. I go ‘Okay, this is Song One.’ And then I move on to Song Two. So sometimes you’ll notice a word pop up a lot, and I’m like ‘Well, this is clearly what you’re thinking about.’ But I don’t want to be the guy who goes to the thesaurus, looking for a more descriptive word like ‘pontificate.’”

What the man and his bandmates (guitarist/keyboardist Alex Rosamilia, bassist Alex Levine and drummer Benny Horowitz) arrived at on Get Hurt is a perfect balance of brains and brawn. And stylistically, it picks up where the definitive American Slang left off, as it kicks off with Sabbath-sludged metal (“Stay Vicious”) before reverberating through gentle jazz (“Selected Poems” and the title track), straightforward coliseum rock (“Rollin’ and Tumblin’”), classic punk-infused anthems (“Red Violins,” “Helter Skeleton”) and—on “Sweet Morphine”—pedal-steel country, a la Fallon’s recent side project with guitarist Ian Perkins, The Horrible Crowes. And Fallon’s phraseology is both acute and astute: “As your black heels kick out the beat of my heart in perfect time”; “Salt for all the cuts, blankets for the cold/ Prayers to keep the devil far away from those I love”; “I learned the rules out with the wolves/ I’m vicious now, honey, cruel and unprincipled”; and, on the aptly-titled “Dark Places,” “If I thought it would help I would drive this car into the sea/ If the fire and the smoke and explosions could speak for me.”

Fallon senses a theme to Get Hurt—conflict. How sometimes he feels angry, and sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he speaks with a perfectly silver tongue; other times he puts his foot in his mouth. Ultimately, he’s come to terms with the fact that he’s just a morbid fellow. He blames it on a crucial developmental period in his youth, when someone gave him a copy of Nick Cave’s Gothic chestnut Henry’s Dream. “Something went broken in my head, and that was it,” he says. “And I understood that I was kind of friendly, but I hated everybody, too. I was listening to The Ramones and Nick Cave equally, and that will break your brain when you’re too young for it. And when you’re trying to figure stuff out, especially doing it on a stage or doing it through records?” he adds. “Hey—sometimes you get it wrong.”

The band chose Crossey for his bright-hued work with UK act The 1975. And Get Hurt was recorded at Blackbird Studios in Nashville, then mixed in Crossey’s native London. Handwritten—despite boasting memorable material like “45,” “Howl,” and an adrenalized cover of Petty’s “You Got Lucky”—felt muted, muffled, O’Brien’s style standing in stark contrast to the angular style of ‘59/Slang producer Ted Hutt. And that’s his own fault, Fallon swears. “When we went to Brendan’s to do Handwritten, we were like ‘Let’s make a big rock record.’ But Brendan is a by-the-book guy. He’s like ‘You play well. You write good songs. Put it on tape.’ There’s no experimenting, like ‘What does ‘elephant’ rhyme with?’ He’s like ‘Who cares what ‘elephant’ rhymes with? Just pick a different word.’”

Currently, Fallon has taken to wearing suit jackets and ties onstage and in videos. And he’s devouring practically any book recommended to him. It started when a folk-singer friend gave him a copy of Decadent poet Arthur Rimbaud’s “A Season In Hell,” and he was duly impressed. Then Ryan told him Rimbaud’s backstory, he says, “how he was 14 and got exiled from France because they called him a heretic for what he wrote. And I was like ‘14?! Never mind the heresy, he was only 14?’ Every time I’d get to another chapter, I’d throw the book against the wall, going ‘14! I don’t believe this! I’m 34 years old—what is my problem?’ But I must be in good company, because I distinctly remember reading articles about Bruce, where they were constantly saying ‘You write about cars and girls and music, and that’s all.’ And I’m like ‘Awesome! I guess he’s doing okay, so why not?’”

Will The Gaslight Anthem (which also just issued a greatest-hits compilation, a B-sides collection and a live DVD) affect too many uptown airs for its blue-collar downtown crowd? Fallon doesn’t think so. He cites Tom Petty’s attitude as exemplary. “He’s like ‘I don’t care what you think of me, I’m doing the best that I can, and what’s more, I believe in it,’” he explains. “So sometimes I do feel a little out of my league. But I’m comfortable being like ‘Well, I didn’t go to college, and I’ve got 50 words to use. That’s all I’ve got. But I’m going to mean those words! Every last one of them. Even if I say them 20 times!’”

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