“Give me fresh corn!” Walt Whitman wrote, and Bruce Springsteen obliged, offering redemption beneath a dirty Camaro hood. A dozen or so of his own records (plus three from the Hold Steady) later, four guys from Jersey upped the corn quotient considerably, first by calling their band the Gaslight Anthem, then by releasing albums with lyrics like, “I sat by my bedside with papers and poetry about Estella” (yes, the Dickens character). But corn works in American romanticism, where it’s as ubiquitous as it is in the supermarket: Tramps like Jack Kerouac are cornier than Green Acres, but boys and girls in America like tramps, and vice versa. Gaslight’s second album, 2008’s The ’59 Sound, was an exhilarating wallow in unabashedly Boss tropes, from sad girls named Mary to “the backseats of burned-out cars,” bumming lifts from Dylan, Seger, and even Counting Crows along the way. It’s a great sound, raucous and tight at the same time, classic FM guitar licks scribbling in the margins of unspooled hardcore riffs.
Well, it’s funny how the night moves. Gaslight frontman Brian Fallon recently told CMJ that the band’s new album, American Slang, would be like the Clash’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope, as The ’59 Sound was like London Calling, which is clumsy for a number of reasons, but mostly because the new record is more like the Replacements’ Don’t Tell a Soul as compared to Tim. In his brief essay “Slang in America,” Whitman discovered prophecy and revelation in colloquial indirection. Fallon begins with a similar and equally promising premise—”You told me fortunes in American slang”—but the ensuing abstractions don’t deliver. Soon, “Stay Lucky” introduces a theme that will unfortunately recur: “You’re never gonna find it like when you were young.” As someone old enough to remember his disappointment the day Human Touch and Lucky Town came out, I resent the world-weary posturing. More important, every song on ’59 Sound seemed to aim for “No Surrender”—why does the follow-up settle for aping Sam’s Town?
It’s not simply that the previous record’s one-two yawp of “Great Expectations” and “The ’59 Sound” established an irresistible sensibility, while American Slang begins diffuse and spreads itself thin from there. The record is long on the big, clichéd anthems the band specializes in, but the borrowings this time are less inspired (“Old Haunts” quotes Don fucking Henley on the chorus), the hokey bits less charming (“The Spirit of Jazz,” really?), so that by the time the thoroughly lackluster “We Did It When We Were Young” redundantly douses the lights, what’s meant to be a slow burn merely fizzles out.
No, what’s really missing is the giddy grandeur that makes even the dopiest Foreigner songs sound good on the right summer night. Already this year, Titus Andronicus and the Hold Steady themselves have given us records that excitingly mine the Clash–via–Asbury Park vein. If The Monitor sometimes stumbles over its own ambition, well, how else is a young band supposed to cut a six-inch valley through the middle of your soul? Heaven Is Whenever, meanwhile, is underrated precisely because that’s what happens when great bands stop making history and start making consistently good albums. Next to these, American Slang sounds hollow and, above all, safe.
But then there’s “Boxer.” A couple other tracks distinguish themselves, too, especially “Orphans,” which is similarly hooky and assured, but “Boxer” shattered my Lowered Expectations, and I played it over and over. Why is this song buried seven tracks in? There’s a brief, stuttering intro, the band chanting the first lines like cheerleaders, and then Alex Rosamilia’s guitar lines are springing around the melody like snakes erupting from a gag can of peanut brittle. The lyrics are about how someone’s life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll—or something:
You took it all gracefully on the chin
Knowing that the beatings had to someday end
You found the bandages inside the pen
And the stitches on the radio
But there was something heavy holding you down
And there were whispers that were driving you crazy
And now you hunt the heart of this town
Remember when I knew a boxer, baby
But all that matters is the way Fallon bites off each syllable as if he’s singing in Hawaiian Creole: “Remember when I knew a bock-ser, bay-bay.” It’s thrilling, like little else on American Slang. The Gaslight Anthem’s profound affection for and commitment to their forebears are just as present as they were before, but only here does the band sound as eager to bury as to praise them.
The Gaslight Anthem play Irving Plaza June 15