Monday, February 2, 2009

Best of 2008: #2. The Gaslight Anthem - The '59 Sound

Following the unexpected success of their debut album Sink or Swim (no Kerrang, they're not fucking new), along with their tour as support for Against Me!, The Gaslight Anthem became a band just on the verge of breaking out. They were one of those groups that had mainstream appeal written all over them, thanks to their strong, accessible, yet distinctive formula that combines the vivid blue-collar rock of yesteryear with a youthful, defiant punk flare. So the fact that their latest release, The '59 Sound has gained them so much in the way of critical and commercial success is really no surprise; what is surprising is how well these guys deserve it. What you can expect from this album is kind of summed up right there, in the album title. This is the ’59 Sound: an elegy for the days of fast cars, small town living, rock n’ roll and a starry-eyed idealism that now typifies the era, all as imagined by people who never lived through it.

The Gaslight Anthem hail from New Jersey, and this geographic influence is utmostly clear in their music, which, like many other bands occupying the region, smacks of the kind of Springsteen hero worship you would expect coming out of a staunchly blue-collar state. They have been described as The Bouncing Souls covering Bruce Springsteen, a comparison which I think does a good job of accurately representing their unique-yet-familiar blend of pop-punk and old fashioned rock n’ roll. While on Sink or Swim, the Gaslight Anthem bordered more on the former than the latter, on The ’59 Sound, this dichotomy is switched. At times, the band moves into full-on homage mode here, dedicating the entire record to the glory of an era past.

But to view The ’59 Sound as merely reverence for a simpler time would be to misconstrue it entirely. As opposed to the reactionary forces that actively long for the ostensibly idyllic days of the 50’s, before the great cultural divide of the United States set in, what the Gaslight Anthem appear to be aiming for thematically in their music is a desire for the innocent hope and naive aspirations that are seen to have encompassed the times following World War II - a romantic appeal for a halcyon time that never truly existed. Maybe that's why the songs here resonate so much with the listener's imagination, even though none of them bear any particular connection to the present. The stories told hold a timeless allure to them, focusing on quixotic notions of hope, love, and everything that can go wrong in between. That the album opens with a song called "Great Expectations" - and that it ends up being much more dour in focus than would be expected - is demonstrative of this balance between the dreams we cling to, and the reality that keeps us from living them.

Where The Gaslight Anthem ultimately succeed with The '59 Sound is in the openly heartfelt way they go about making it, from the enchanting, bluesy riffs, to the emotional, soul-baring pleas of singer Brian Fallon. There's an endearing warmth to music like this; it calms you even as it enlivens you, blanketing its listener in an inspirational and cathartic mix of hope and distress that could serve as a soundtrack for all the unfulfilled dreamers out there who insist on keeping on. The '59 Sound is neither the sound of maturity nor is it the sound of youthful indignation - it is too boisterous to be the former, too meloncholy to be the latter - but whatever it is is imbued with a quiet wisdom and a stirring passion that must surely be beyond the years of the four twenty-somethings that wrote it.


gabbagabbahey said...

this band were kinda new to me; before this album I'd just heard of them as a sort of sub-Bouncing Souls punk band.

(arguably, that's still what they are - particularly if the Bouncing Souls come out with another album like Anchors Aweigh...)

It was the Springsteen/indie sound (you think they sound a bit like the Killers?) that got me into them - I was listening to the EP and there's a marked difference in sound and, to a lesser extent, in style between it and this album.

cretin said...

honestly, I'm a little on the fence over whether I like this or Sink or Swim better. there's definitely a shift in focus between the two, and the result is that The '59 Sound ends up less aggressive and probably more accessible because of it. if you haven't heard Sink or Swim yet, I heartily recommend it.

I can see the 'indie' comparisons, especially in songs like "Miles Davis and the Cool", although I think the Hold Steady is a better example than the Killers (who too often resort to layer after layer of pop gloss in order to make up for the complete lack of substance in anything they do). obviously, the Springsteen comparison is the most notorious one, and while I have never been a big Springsteen fan (at a certain point, the musical icons of decades past inevitably lose a lot of their resonance in relation to those who were never around to experience them), I must agree his is a strong influence on this album.