The Bruce Springsteen comparisons have followed Brian Fallon’s every step. When Fallon burst out of Asbury Park, N.J. and onto the covers of rock magazines as the lead singer of The Gaslight Anthem, music journalists were quick to note his similarities to Springsteen, New Jersey’s favorite native son. The New York Times Magazine’s Lizzy Goodman subtitled a 2012 profile “Is Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon the True Heir to Springsteen?” Leonie Cooper of New Musical Express wrote an article that same year titled “Why The Gaslight Anthem Are The Saviors Of American Rock ’n Roll.” In 2009, The Boss himself even joined Gaslight on the stage for several performances.
Yet the parallels soon began to limit, even haunt, Fallon and the band. Christened as the last hope for classic rock, Gaslight bore the pressure to uphold an entire musical tradition. The band never met critics’ unreasonable expectations, and it was impugned for what many saw as untapped potential. While praising its Springsteen-esque qualities, writers simultaneously criticized the band for bordering on imitation. For sure, Gaslight’s early material made consistent use of stereotypical heartland rock nostalgia. Fallon often sang of radios, classic cars, old movies, blue jeans and white T-shirts – images that perhaps became played out and were at times downright cheesy.
Fallon experienced turbulence in his personal life as well; Gaslight’s 2014 album Get Hurt was inspired largely by Fallon’s divorce from his wife of 10 years. The album was heavier than any of Gaslight’s previous material, both musically and lyrically, and reached No. 4 on the Billboard 200. It was met, however, with some savage reviews. Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen wrote, “The Gaslight Anthem is a band almost exclusively defined by their relationship with Bruce Springsteen.” Slant Magazine’s Jeremy Winograd called the album “shockingly misguided.” The band went on hiatus the following year, and Fallon contemplated quitting music altogether.
Fallon eventually chose to proceed as a singer-songwriter, and his solo debut, 2016’s Painkillers, delved deeper into his introspective side. Reviews were generally favorable, and American Songwriter ranked the album the 29th best release of 2016.
Released last Friday, Fallon’s second solo album, Sleepwalkers, debuted at No. 6 on the iTunes chart for top U.S. albums. On Sleepwalkers, Fallon does not abandon his Jersey roots, but he does take the necessary risks to produce an absorbing record. While not a reinvention, the album shows Fallon’s progress in crafting a unique musical style. It contains the emotionally honest writing that made Painkillers successful and mixes in the anthemic, energetic melodies that helped Gaslight win over its fans. Fallon’s grizzly vocals may be a bit of an acquired taste, but Sleepwalker’s catchy hooks and wide range of sounds should make it a worthwhile listen for fans of roots music, classic rock or just good songs.
The album opens with the groovy, upbeat “If Your Prayers Don’t Get to Heaven.” The bass line is captivating, and the staccato rhythm of the guitar evokes images of Motown. While not as lyrically strong as other songs on the record, the opener provides the energy off which the rest of the album feeds.
The second track and lead single, “Forget Me Not,” is trademark Fallon. Behind a simple guitar lick and a bouncy backbeat, Fallon implores his lover to remember him after he dies, even if she has found someone new. “Would you put your black dress on and visit my bones?” he asks in the chorus. “Would I get any rest from the wreck that I was with the living/ Or would you just go on?”
Fallon crescendos into “Etta James,” a passionate ballad that explores the disparity between the realities of daily life and the fairytales portrayed in fantasy novels and Hollywood movies. The guitar shines, and the song finds a delicate balance between wistfulness and assertion.
While not particularly memorable, the jangly, laid-back folk sound of “Her Majesty’s Service” and “Proof of Life” provides necessary contrast. “Little Nightmares” and the saxophone-infused title track provide nifty, sing-along choruses as well.
“My Name Is the Night (Color Me Black)” is a splendid, soulful offering. “The moon is upside down, hanging on a telephone,” Fallon sings about the confusion of his search for identity, both musically and personally.
“Neptune” gets more reflective about Fallon’s musical journey, as he wonders in the chorus, “Maybe we believed in very, very foolish things/ Maybe these songs kept us breathing another tomorrow.” Fallon did not set out to save rock music with Gaslight. At the end of the day, he is a hopeless romantic who sings out of a desperate need for self-expression. He declares in the song’s second verse, “But there’s not one day I regret/ And I would do it all again/ So if I go down, Lily, I’m going down believing.”
Fallon bares his soul in the heart-wrenching “Watson.” The speaker is a wounded man in need of comfort. Fallon sings in the bridge, “I remember how we danced through the towns on the Thames/ For one little night, I felt like I could be made new again.” His metaphor of a British detective chasing “the one that got away” is understatedly brilliant.
The album closes with the acoustic “See You On the Other Side,” in which Fallon ponders a love that lasts beyond death.
Although “Forget Me Not,” “Etta James” and “Watson” are great songs, Sleepwalkers does lack the conviction that was present in Gaslight’s thesis statement albums The ’59 Sound and American Slang. Fallon’s writing, while indisputably earnest, can be jumpy at times. He may simply need more time to settle in as a solo artist.
Fallon will never be able to outrun the Springsteen comparisons – the similarities will always persist. However, he can work to construct a unique musical identity in his solo work without rejecting the influence of his idols. Sleepwalkers is a step in the right direction, and it shows flashes of brilliance, hinting that Fallon’s best is yet to come.