Gaslight Anthem: Return of the working-class heroes?

Bruce Springsteen and The Gaslight Anthem at Glastonbury festival last year.

The Gaslight Anthem must be sick of the Springsteen references by now. Ever since bursting into international consciousness a few years back, there’s been no shortage of critics willing to draw the connections between them and the Boss.

It’s not that these comparisons are wrong. The members of Gaslight have been quite open about the cue they take from Springsteen, and have even shared a stage with him (they are, after all, from Jersey). Anyone who hears the group’s exaggerated garage rock dynamics or lead-singer Brian Fallon’s gravel-gutted, heart-on-sleeve testimonial can clearly hear the influence. Rather, it’s the sheer laziness of these comparisons that has this writer’s pen flying off the page.

With their third album American Slang on the shelves and tearing up the charts, the boys from New Brunswick may be finally moving out from under the Boss’s shadow. Good thing too, because this is a band that clearly stand on their own. And the tradition they spring from, maybe even reviving, runs a lot deeper than any one artist--even Springsteen.

It can be heard in the pounding exaltation of the opening beats and the melancholy final notes: tales of youthful aspirations bound to hit the brick wall of reality. In the lead title track, Fallon wails with reckless desperation about “where the angels and devils meet”:

“Look at the damage
The fortunes came for the richer men
While we’re left with gallows
Waiting for us liars to come down and hang”

These are the folks that populate American Slang: nameless and alienated millions reaching up from the bottom in a world of too many heartaches and too few working class heroes. No doubt, Fallon has a knack for writing about people who, as he describes in the high-octane track “Boxer”:

“...took it all gracefully on the chin
Knowing that the beatings had to someday end
You found your bandages inside the pen
And your stitches on the radio”

Lines like these have naturally provoked the requisite reference to Bruce Almighty. They’ve also flummoxed many a critic. In an otherwise positive review, 411mania.com’s David Hayter remarks that “[i]t feels too prototypical and too cliche.”

As Fallon himself will attest, though, these subjects don’t exist merely in songs. The group’s lead singer describes the lyrical content of American Slang as “more autobiographical” than that of 2008’s The ‘59 Sound. Growing up in New Brunswick, Fallon’s upbringing was “not extremely bad, not extremely good... None of us were like, really, really broke. I never feel like any of us had it worse than anyone else.”

Still, this kind of life is hardly the stuff of dreams. Speaking of his step-father, Fallon told the Washington Post Express that "[h]e's just that kind of guy, a real blue-collar guy... Right off the bat, he was like, 'you don't want to do what I do; you should pursue [music], and, in the worst case, if you fail, the factory is waiting for you.'"

It’s almost as much a threat as it is a promise, enough to motivate a young Fallon to not just pursue music, but vividly pour his heart and soul into it. How that heart feels about its surroundings isn’t always so clear-cut, as Fallon relays in the album’s highlight track “Orphans”:

“Goodbye circus wheel, may you rest upon the sea
I have given you the fire of my youth and the triumph o’er my enemies
Goodbye fair-weather home, and your faithless factories
I have given you the blood and the truth, from the wounds they laid into me”

This need to escape the humdrum hell of hometown half-life can certainly be heard in Springsteen tracks like “The River,” the solace of music in “No Surrender.” But they can also be heard throughout the rich history of American popular music, from Bill Haley to Buddy Holly to Lee Dorsey’s “Working in the Coal Mine.”

It wasn't too long ago, however, that everything embodied by these artists' songs was written off as out-dated. As experts waxed on about the "end of history" and the irrelevance of classes, so did the rock & roll archetype of the blue-collar rebel become obscured. If Springsteen has spent the past three decades as the torch-bearer for this legacy, it has to be seen at least partially in contrast to a music establishment that has become increasingly segregated from the grassroots.

Fallon and the rest of the Gaslight Anthem seem stunningly aware of that same tradition, though. The bouncy, finger-snapping beat of “The Diamond Church Steet Choir” calls on old-school R&B more than anything else. “Old Haunts” relies on the four-chord defiance of hardcore punk as Fallon demands of the listener “don’t sing me your songs about the good times / those days are gone and you should just let ‘em go.”

This broadly appealing yet vividly specific palette can’t be traced solely back to Springsteen. Respect is due to the group’s other influences: Joe Strummer, Tom Waits, Sam Cooke, Johnny Cash. Artists who, despite hovering well below the shiny, happy surface of the mainstream, prove that there is still an underclass--a down-and-out contingent of forgotten souls struggling to find meaning beyond work-a-day anonymity.

Those who find the lyrics of American Slang trite or vague would do well to visit Janesville, Wisconsin, Lordstown, Ohio, or any one of the countless small industrial towns whose painful decline has been interrupted only by the deathblow of the ‘08 recession. Even the Nestle factory where Fallon’s step-father works has faced a typically alarming amount of layoffs over the past decade. One wonders how many young hopes and ambitions have been scattered to the wind in the wake.

At the time of writing, American Slang had debuted at number 16 on the Billboard Album charts. The success of Gaslight and the groundswell of support they’ve received seemingly overnight reveals that their kind of outlook--a rough instinctual class consciousness, a firm belief in something (anything!) better than this--may once again be gaining traction.

“We’re not interested in the party,” says Fallon, “we’re [playing music] because we love it, and we’re doing it to prove a point. We have something to say here.”

It’s not as simple as a slogan, but it’s something well worth saying. In some ways, it’s even more profound. What makes American Slang such a brilliant piece of work isn’t the legacy it owes to the past, but what it says about the future. It’s proof that even when we’re not taking to the streets or seizing the means of production, we still exist. We still live, we still breathe, and yes, we still dream.

[Reprinted from the US Socialist Worker. It first appeared at Society of Cinema and Arts.]

Below: “American Slang” film clip.