I often wonder if New Jersey bands get sick of the Springsteen comparisons. Sure, there have been many other notable rock outfits to emerge from the Garden State, but The Boss has always been the gold standard by which all others are measured. Hopefully these comparisons won’t bother Jersey band The Gaslight Anthem, because they’re a huge compliment, and these kids have probably heard them a lot. Much like Born To Run-era Bruce, this young band writes simple songs that tell the stories of youth, of nights spent lamenting lost loves and searching for new ones while cruising the streets and trying to figure out what it all means. I’m willing to bet that the Springsteen references are a hell of a lot preferable to being compared to Bon Jovi.
Like the Manning family is to football, I envision a fantasy rock dynasty in which Bruce Springsteen is the doting, Hall of Famer father, while The Hold Steady are the star older brother that is writing a new chapter in the family legend. If that’s the case, then The Gaslight Anthem would be the sensitive younger brother, for now just as content to sit on the sidelines reading poetry (like James Van Der Beek’s character in Varsity Blues) as stepping onto the field and hearing the roar of the arena. But they have it in them to be great, to emerge like young Eli Manning to show dad and big bro that they too can contribute a thrilling new edition to the family legacy.
Overwrought football analogies aside, one of the stunning things about The Gaslight Anthem’s latest record, The ’59 Sound, is its simplicity. Using tried and true, Clash-inspired punk rock riffs with bluesy undertones, The Gaslight Anthem’s music is both familiar and effortless. Combined with lead singer Brian Fallon’s heart-on-sleeve lyrics about love and loss, you might expect to hear something that treads dangerously close to “emo” territory. But while the emotive sentiment is there, this is not a band of crybabies. They carry in their songs a lightly growling punk swagger that remains assertive without coming off as boastful or whiny like the majority of pop/punk acts today. When Fallon sings in the heartbreaking title track “Young boys, young girls, ain’t supposed to die on a Saturday night,” the listener is more likely to envision a blue collar punk downing beers at a wake than a mop-haired, guy-liner sporting emo brat dropping a lone tear into his mocha latté. That The Gaslight Anthem can pull off such sentimental music without coming off as little bitches is a testament to their respect for classic punk and rock ‘n’ roll.
The album’s songs are a roll call of women past and present, a familiar trope shared with The Boss as well as fellow New Jersey band the Wrens. We hear the stories of Maria, Ann, Virginia, and others, all culminating in the laundry list of ladies lost rattled off in the country-tinged late album track “Here’s Looking At You, Kid,” a sad ballad that imagines how all those girls that broke the narrator’s heart would feel if he were rich and famous now, even though he isn’t. Another common theme carried throughout the record is the identification with the teen culture of the late 50’s/early 60’s, an iconic era that nonetheless was long over before any of the band members were born. The album makes constant reference to old cars (“Old White Lincoln”), old movies (“Film Noir” and “Here’s Looking At You, Kid”), and old music (“High Lonesome”). Despite the Rebel Without A Cause nostalgia, the album always takes itself seriously enough to pull it off without ever venturing into campy “Happy Days” territory. Again, these elements are seamlessly integrated into The Gaslight Anthem’s music, showing that even these most commonly visited themes of teen angst from yesteryear are still relatable and relevant to today’s youth.
It’s great to hear a modern rock band with such a reverence for the past and the common elements that make rock music so effective. There are thousands of bands out there right now who haplessly throw out the same punk chords that can be heard on The ’59 Sound, but the difference is that The Gaslight Anthem make it sound so natural. These songs are not something you would ever hear on the new Guns N’ Roses album (thank God!); no one slaved over a mixing board for over a decade crafting each and every detail of this record. Instead, a band walked into a recording studio and banged out twelve simple rock songs that brilliantly capture the sad sound and rebellious spirit of tortured youth. In reality, it may not have been quite so easy for The Gaslight Anthem, but they sure make it sound like it was.
Update (GW): My review of this album is here.