“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates once sagely noted. And sometimes we enter into such self-reflection of our own volition. Other times, we’re forced into it by circumstances simply beyond our control. Gaslight Anthem bandleader Brian Fallon, for instance, was caroming through a pell-mell existence with his band, in an endless cycle of album releases, then attendant touring, with no spare time for any observations that went deeper than the glossy rock-star surface. But three years ago, everything changed. And he was forced to take a long, hard look at himself, which led to his new solo set, Painkillers, his most brutally honest yet altogether anthemic and uplifting work to date.
In retrospect, the catalyst is crystal clear: Three years ago, the 36-year-old singer/guitarist divorced his wife Hollie after a decade together. In response, he penned a reactionary record, 2014’s Get Hurt, Gaslight’s fifth. Amid the disc’s meat-and-potatoes power chords that have been the New Jersey group’s stock in trade since its definitive sophomore outing in 2008, The ’59 Sound, there were forlorn, ego-bruised entries like “Dark Places,” “Break Your Heart,” and the self-explanatory “This is Where We Part.” They echoed the first initial sting of spousal separation, but didn’t delve into any serious emotional pain. That would come later.
“Get Hurt was more of a knee-jerk response, so I don’t think that there was that much reflection involved in it,” Fallon believes. “And I tried not to make the whole record about [the divorce], but you can’t shy away from what’s on your mind, as a writer or as an artist of any kind—I don’t think you can escape the immediacy of what’s in your subconscious, because it’s got to get out. So I was just trying to kick it all out and get it out of my system.” He spent most of the Get Hurt tour feeling numb and vacant, like a passenger, he says. Inside, he was slowing down, starting to muse on his extraordinary existence and then coming to terms with the finality of where he’d ended up. There was no going back.
“It’s like if you get an injury, like you break a leg or something,” says the artist, who wasn’t used to being alone. “Something like that really allows you to look around and take stock of where you’ve been. And I think in that period of injury—and kind of figuring out what to do now—I definitely looked back on the things that had happened and my career. And I was like, ‘Hey, you know, this is a good thing, and I’m pretty fortunate to have been to places and seen and done the things that I have.’ And it took me back to why I started writing music in the first place, and not necessarily what was the immediate next project that had to be completed.”
In fact, Fallon admits, he didn’t compose a single number for several months after returning from that tour to his mausoleum-spooky new bachelor pad, which had no art or posters hanging on its walls—an embarrassing fact that he would eventually address on one of Painkillers’ most propulsive cuts, the Dylan-jangling “Red Lights”: “In all good faith and sentiment I can’t believe somehow/ That I haven’t died of grief or something since you left this town/ I’m all undecorated, cigarettes, standard white apartment walls.”
“I definitely was just sitting there, thinking,” he adds. “For the first time in my life, I was in a room by myself, but I didn’t have that ‘Woe is me’ feeling, and I didn’t allow myself to complain about it. I was like, ‘Wow. Okay. We’re here now. I don’t know how we got here, but we’re here. This is the new deal, so you’ve got to get used to it.’ I decided that that was my chair, and I was going to sit in it and go with it.”
Painkillers was worth all the turmoil and ongoing analysis. From the twangy title track to the punk-folk hybrids “Rosemary,” “Nobody Wins” and the New Orleans-flavored “Mojo Hand” and the customary closing ballad “Open All Night,” it’s easily one of the best records of the year so far. Bouncing jarringly through serious subjects like guilt, recrimination and self-doubt, it stands as an epitaph on a once-thriving relationship, best exemplified in this telling passage from “Rosemary”: “And there’s a hole in me now/ Like the windshield was taken out/ And everybody’s hurt, and mine ain’t the worst/ But it’s mine and I’m feeling it now.” And it shines a spotlight on a songwriter not only in love with his craft—and the musical history that preceded him—but one reaching the hallowed upper echelons of his boyhood idols. Call it the vocalist’s own personal Full Moon Fever, on which he collaborated with pop-savvy producer Butch Walker (in a real ‘Why didn’t anybody think of this team-up before?’ kind of moment) and a new backing band—bassist Catherine Popper, Mark Stepro on drums, and Walker himself on piano, guitar and backing vocals. Also dropping by the sessions: Gaslight’s Alex Rosamilla on keyboards and Fallon’s partner in the acoustic duo The Horrible Crowes, guitarist Ian Perkins. He’s found his own keen-eared Jeff Lynne for future collaboration.
Fallon even began seeing a therapist once a week to combat his anxiety, depression and ensuing writer’s block. Soon, his existential crisis didn’t seem so dire anymore. In essence, he was considering the rest of his life, and he wanted to be not just content, but happy. “You bought the ticket, you’re in the movie, so you’ve got to finish it out, and you can finish it on a high note, or on a low note,” he explains. “So I thought, ‘Let me take this as an opportunity to figure out what exactly I’m doing—and not doing—right.’ So I took a lot of stock. And once you start looking within yourself for what’s wrong with you—not what’s wrong with the rest of the world—that’s when you’re seeing everything. Everything else that maybe you ignored or just didn’t realize.” So the prime question became: how could he change to make not only his life, but the universe around him, better?
This led to the record’s picture-perfect opening track, the stomping, celebratory “Wonderful Life,” and “Maybe there’s more than the treasures we secured that become heavy chains to sink us in tidal waves/ I want a life on fire, going mad with desire/ I don’t want to survive, I want a wonderful life.” Fallon’s charismatic, sandpapery rasp has never sounded more defiant, his working-class lyrics never so everyman-relevant. But Painkillers practically claims the sound as his own, thanks in part to Walker, who sharpened Fallon’s hooks into taloned points and pushed him into new sonic territory often bordering on alt-country—turf he’d already explored the Get Hurt pedal steel lament “Sweet Morphine,” one of his personal catalog favorites.
It all started post-juggernaut, Fallon recalls, when he and his exhausted bandmates all agreed that Gaslight Anthem should take a breather. Initially confused about how to proceed, he simply chose to get back to work, writing music. That was his identity, and all he knew. Raised on a diet of (and even befriended by) Bruce Springsteen, he used to throw in random lyrics like “No surrender, my Bobby Jean” that namechecked his hero (on Painkillers, he tips the poetic hat to Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison). Then, once he accompanied The Boss onstage in London, the Red Bank, N.J.-bred rocker grew tired of the inevitable journalistic comparisons that arose. So he shied away from obvious homages, outside of a telling cover of Tom Petty’s jagged “You Got Lucky” on 2012’s Brendan O’Brien-helmed Handwritten. But he realized that he’d been overreacting.
Left to his own devices, Fallon began adorning his digs with posters of Pearl Jam and old movies, whatever caught his fancy on eBay. Then he pulled out all of his old favorite albums, including Springsteen’s first three albums, plus his more gothic, skeletal later work, like Devils and Dust and The Ghost of Tom Joad. Some Bob Seger was thrown in for good measure, plus the entire Beatles collection—he wanted to study the non-singles tracks that he’d never gotten familiar with. “It wasn’t really for anybody else—it was just for me,” he says. “I was reminding myself where I was coming from, and refocusing on where I’d been. And it was a nice reminder.” He laughs. “It really was like sitting in an old chair. It was like, ‘Alright, this is you. This is who you are. You’re a fan of rock and roll music, that’s your thing. So go back and tell people that.’” That’s how the Painkillers concept occurred to him, he says—they were the crowd-pleasing rock anthems that had always made him feel good, no matter how bad his day had been going. So he was going to pen a few of his own.
The composer was also expanding his horizons via literature.Once he learned that, say, Dylan read a certain crucial text, he would track it down and read it, too—as he did with Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath since Springsteen wrote about it in Tom Joad. “Jon Landau, Bruce’s manager, said that Bruce will take anything and just absorb it and make it his own, and then kind of spit it out,” he marvels. “And I took that to heart. I thought, ‘That’s cool. Just take in everything and spit it out, and it’ll come out as you. Because it is you.’”
At first, Fallon thought he might disappear into another Crowes-like side project. With Popper, he had formed a playful Dylan-inspired combo called Molly and the Zombies, just to perform an Asbury Park Christmas concert with The Bouncing Souls. That’s where his rustic new solo cut “Smoke” originated, he says, before he brought it to Walker, who dissembled it into the jug-band stomper it is on Painkillers. At Walker’s urging, he co-wrote the ‘60s-ethereal chimer “Steve McQueen” with Semisonic/Trip Shakespeare founder Dan Wilson—in only 40 minutes, he proudly points out. The conversation was simple. Wilson asked him what he was into, he replied Mustangs and Steve McQueen, “And Dan said, ‘That’s really cool—why don’t you write a song about that?’” he chuckles.
Of course, self-assessment can sometimes go too far, possibly descend into egomaniacal navel gazing. But Fallon swears that will never happen to him. He’s just too damned insecure, you see. “I feel like if you talk to me for a week straight, you’ll be like, ‘That guy’s a dummy!’” he concludes. “But there are these moments of arriving at this stuff, these lightning bolts that get shot into my head, where I feel grateful for them. Because I still don’t know how they come out—I just stumble upon them. It’s almost like they…they just appear on the page.”