There are bands that spend their careers defined by their influences. Critics never fail to mention their sonic predecessors, nevermind how apt the comparison is, and evolving sounds are chalked up to attempts at escaping those constant references.
To the guys in The Gaslight Anthem: sorry. This won’t be the review that neglects the Bruce Springsteen name drop. Your new platter, American Slang, is as unapologetic an embrace of influence as ever there was.
Sure, The Gaslight Anthem technically hails from New Brunswick, N.J. – the “Hub City” so often referenced by singer Brian Fallon – rather than Asbury Park, but the distinction is a minor one. American Slang delves into workingman mythology as enthusiastically as The Boss ever did. Fallon’s soulful shout matches the lyrics with raw emotional impact in a way Springsteen trademarked. It’s good, then, that the band has never showed signs of being displeased with the comparisons to that Jersey Shore juggernaut.
“Old Haunts” reads as a “Glory Days” filtered through Joe Strummer’s fuzzed-out Music Man amp, with a chorus of “So don’t sing me your songs about the good times/Those days are gone and you should just let them go.” “We Did It When We Were Young,” mining the same wistful territory that “Old Haunts” ridiculed, is more of a Nebraska-sparse arrangement, Fallon harmonizing with himself over a subdued rhythm section.
Beyond The Gaslight Anthem’s secondary musical debt to The Clash, the major difference between its music and Springsteen’s is a lingering darkness. Bruce certainly didn’t shy away from the plight of his blue-collar characters, but his music often belied the dismal truth in his words – see “Born in the U.S.A.” for the most famous of many examples. The Gaslight Anthem’s music, on the other hand, can almost always be found in a minor-key groove. The songs, affecting and engrossing as their lyrics are, start to blur together across the space of an entire album.
“The Diamond Church Street Choir,” then, is perhaps the track least characteristic of the band’s past. It does retain that clear Springsteen flavor, but it trades in the punk influences that pervade the rest of the record in favor of a distinctive Bob Seger/Billy Joel nostalgic-rock vibe. There are handclaps, finger snaps, uplifting harmonies on the chorus and a blissful hook. It’s misty-eyed without being as melancholic as the band’s signature tunes. This is the Jersey Shore Sound incarnate, the R&B underpinnings at their most apparent, and it serves as a centerpiece to American Slang.
The next track is the polar opposite, the album’s low point in contrast to the triumph of “The Diamond Church Street Choir.” “The Queen of Lower Chelsea” features a spidery, subliminally irritating guitar riff and, oddly, verses that evoke an unfavorable comparison to a Vampire Weekend song. It serves only to bring the preceding track’s high crashing back to Earth.
Surrounding the peak/valley combo of those two songs is a generally sturdy collection of supporting tracks. “American Slang” is an anthemic love song, replete with “woah oh” background vocals. Several of the songs seem just on the verge of being really memorable, but that one key hook is always elusive.
For what it’s worth, this the best Gaslight Anthem record yet, if only because “The Diamond Church Street Choir” stands out as a truly great piece of songwriting. One day, the band will craft an album that combines its Springsteen-via-punk aesthetic with the songwriting chops it hinted at here. That’ll be the day it sheds those constant comparisons.