If there’s one thing American Slang isn’t, it’s a Bruce Springsteen tribute album. Gone are the direct references to Springsteen lyrics and mentions of Mary and Janey that dotted the Gaslight Anthem’s breakout sophomore album, 2008’s The ’59 Sound. But that doesn’t mean the shadow of The Boss doesn’t loom large over their latest release.
Brian Fallon and the Jersey boys that make up the Gaslight Anthem were always more Springsteenian in spirit than in practice, with Alex Rosamilia’s punky guitars and Benny Horowitz’s pounding drums making their three-minute records more reminiscent of the Clash than of the E Street Band’s piano-and-saxophone epics. But in Fallon’s raspy sincerity, his desperate images of heartbroken loners and crushed dreams and the band’s embrace of the power of rock ’n’ roll redemption, Gaslight Anthem is the current frontrunner in the battle of the Springsteen successors.
On American Slang, though, the band is much more than that, with the Joe Strummer influence clearer than ever as it mingles with shades of reggae, grunge and Ramones-era punk pop. Songs like the title track, “Stay Lucky” and the driving, buoyant “Orphans” continue the blow-out-the-stops guitar salvation mode of their last CD, and “Bring It On” raises the stakes with a moodier build as Fallon offers to take on all comers for a lost love: “Give me the fevers that just won’t break, and give me the children you don’t want to raise,” he demands, in one of the album’s more striking couplets.
The songs continue the band’s downtrodden tales of lost wives and forgotten youth, with a newly evocative bent: “The steam heat pours from the bodies on the floor, down in the basement where the jackknives play,” Fallon sings on the soul-tinged “The Diamond Church Street Choir,” in a typical example of the band’s expanding lyrical palette. Fallon stretches too, hitting high notes both musical and emotional on tracks like “Choir” and the grungy “Old Haunts.” (There’s even a scary moment on the back-from-the-brink anthem “Boxer” where you think he might start rapping, but it passes quickly.)
One of the things I love most about American Slang is that the title is no accident — the album really does speak the language of America, both in its roots in early rock ’n’ roll and the urban sensibilities of the scrappy survivors it sings about. These are people who’ve suffered the direst emotional blows and still haven’t lost hope that they might someday soar.
And the music on American Slang certainly soars with them. Tight as a drum, not a note is wasted — there’s a whole world encapsulated in that 35 minutes. Even as things wind down with the atmospheric closing track, “We Did It When We Were Young,” it’s clear that Fallon and company are still just getting started with their tales of the queens, “The Cool,” and the absent wives and dogs of “American Slang.”
Who knows? Someday it might lead to a rock opera or an album of 12-minute masterpieces; for now, the bursts of brilliance that make up this song cycle will more than fit the bill.
Gaslight Anthem, “American Slang,” SideOneDummy Records, June 15. Hear the album in full on NPR until June 15.
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