The Gaslight Anthem: A Love Letter To 'The '59 Sound'

19 December 2018 | 2:22 pm | Alex Sievers
Originally Appeared In

Ten years on and I still love dearly 'The '59 Sound'.

Ten years on & I still dearly love 'The '59 Sound'. 

2018 marked the tenth anniversary of The Gaslight Anthem's second album, 'The '59 Sound', first released on August 19th, 2008 via SideOneDummy. Whilst we're in mid-December, the reason I'm getting to this now is because I wasn't caught in sudden nostalgia during the June-August period of 2018 when the New Jersey act kicked-off ten-year shows for their fabled sophomore. Why was that? Well, because the retrospective place that The Gaslight Anthem entered into didn't sweep me off my feet as 'The '59 Sound' isn't a trip down memory lane for me; it's a listening experience I take often! Since I first heard the full LP back in 2008, after discovering it and the band thanks to the album's title track being featured an old Rock Sound CD, not a season goes by where I don't soak up the blues of 'The '59 Sound'. It's an all-time favourite album for yours truly. It's a record I've put on through sickness and health, through breakups and depression, and through happiness and love.

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After getting some very warm critic love and scoring them some bigger support slots, it's a record that really set the band up for greater commercial success to follow (and it did). At it's charming core, 'The '59 Sound' is a heartfelt, bluesy rock album with punk undertones and literary influences romanticising death, the American heartland, youth, the cusp of adulthood, heartbreak, and 1950's-60's art and culture. (Thankfully minus the out-dated views about race and women's rights regarding that last part). The lyrical content plays out like a coming-of-age romantic drama, like a John Hughes film put through a depressed black-and-white filter, with some added working class themes thrown in. Yet it all makes for a great, honest take on such ideas.

Musically, 'The '59 Sound' is inspired by artists like The Replacements, Social DistortionElvisMiles DavisBruce Springsteen (who the band received endless comparisons to at the time of this release dropping, to much of their annoyance) and The Killers. You see most of that in general timbre of these songs and in the voicing of their riffs and chords. There's also some references to the works of authors like Charles Dickens as well. Then, furthermore, littered within this record's hospital walls are also personal, relatable experiences of love loss and death. On top of all that, it's just a really solid album too!

There's the fast, punk energy that drives the lyrically solemn 'High Lonesome' and the poetic, bittersweet 'Great Expectations' forward like classic cars speeding along an open highway. You've got the calm, stripped-back guitar strumming and snare brushwork of 'Here's Looking At You, Kid' - probably one of the saddest songs the band has ever penned. The smile-inducing Americana rock of the catchy 'Old White Lincoln', as well as the wanting lyrics and bluesy shuffles that punctuate the gloomy bar imagery of 'Film Noir' and the soulful, guitar-bending 'Even Cowgirls' Get The Blues' are all wonderful. And then there's just how enthralling each and every chorus here is, like the anthemic title track, the uplifting refrains in 'Casanova, Baby!' and 'The Backseat', as well as the infectious 'Meet Me By The River's Edge'. This album is just pure fucking gold, pretty much.

From the delay dipped over frontman Brian Fallon's vocals and the subtle slap-back delay on  Benny Horowitz's drum-kit, this record has such a homey vibe. Produced by Ted Hutt (Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys), there's just a lovely, timeless quality to everything that 'The 59th Sound' offers. It could've been released in 1978, 1998, 2008 or even now in 2018, and not only would it still sound good, it'd still be a much-adored record, all down to the songwriting and hooks alone. Because you can bet as soon as I hear those soft vinyl crackles and haunting guitars for the intro to 'Great Expectations', I'm totally ready to belt out "Mary, this station is playing every sad song" at the top of my goddamn lungs.

Hell, I'd even go so far as to say that I want the album's eponymous song to be played my own funeral - and now you're all my witnesses to that statement. Which would be super fitting, given the song's mournful lyrics of a dear friend passing away and focusing on one's own mortality. If anything, that titular track is a full testament to the skilful songwriting and passion that existed across 'The '59 Sound' at the time in 2008 and even now; a big factor in why the release has stuck around in the hearts and minds of so many to this day.

One thing I realised whilst pulling this piece together is that the quartet have never had a line-up change since they started dropping full-length records from 2007 onwards with their debut, 'Sink Or Swim'. (First lead guitarist Mike Volpe did leave the band in 2006, though). The four men that you see grace the front cover of 'The '59 Sound' still reprise their respective roles - their just wiser and older since this album's release ten years ago when that photo was first snapped.

From aforementioned drummer Benny Horowitz, to guitarist Alex Rosamilia and bassist Alex Levine and of course, guitarist/vocalist Brain Fallon, there's a wholesome chemistry to this band. Both found on their records and at their live shows too. That's crystal clear with the songwriting 'The '59 Sound', it's evident on the sound and performances in their 2013 Live In London DVD, and, as an anecdotal piece, was also very true when I first saw the band live at Soundwave Festival 2011. (They were fucking incredible, by the way). Which is perhaps another reason why many people still love this record and this band - the members themselves love what they do too and have made peace with that since reuniting this year.

Speaking with Rolling Stone back in February of this year about their second effort, Brian actually noted that importance and their enjoyment, saying:

"The big thing between us was let's just do what's fun. So if it's heavy-handed and not that cool, then let's not do it. But we all feel that this is an important record to not only us, but to the people that love it. I would not be on the phone talking about my Sleepwalkers record had it not been for The '59 Sound."

[caption id="attachment_1104893" align="aligncenter" width="760"] The Gaslight Anthem, circa 2014/2015. [/caption]

It was also quite surreal to hear 'The '59 Sounds Sessions', a companion LP of sorts that the band dropped in June, 2018 featuring six early versions of these songs and three rarities. Surreal in the sense to hear what some of these much-loved songs once were, what they maybe could've been in another life, and which songs then didn't make the final cut ('God's Gonna Cut You Down', most of 'Placeholder', and 'US-A6G-18-70808 - Our Father's Sons'). As a fan, it's an interesting and rather weird listening experience, to say the least. But I will say that if you love The Gaslight Anthem and 'The '59 Sound', then you owe it to yourself to check this thing out.

For instance, when Brian sings "standing in the Cleveland rain" on ''The Patient Ferris Wheel', instead of "standing in the Jersey rain" like he does on 'The '59 Sound', it feels like something isn't quite right. It's like an uncanny valley; like you've just glimpsed into a slightly alternate timeline of something that you're so familiar with. That may seem like a minor change for most people, but as someone who has listened to this record consistently for nearly ten fucking years, that's a big deal. Yet it's an opposite side that I'm thankful to hear, as it makes me love the final version that much more.

Obviously, the production of 'The '59 Sound Sessions' is more 'demo' than 'polished' at times (and with noticeably more reverb and instrumental crunch), yet so too are the band's performances in terms of timing and execution. 'High Lonesome', in particular, is janglier and not all that pretty either. Although, that being said, 'Great Expectations' has much of it's glory still in-tact, even at that earlier point. This really is the bare bones framework of what these amazing songs would become; even greatness can have a rough beginning sometimes.

Then there are the new unreleased songs present. Namely 'Placeholder' (which features the chorus lyrics from 'Old White Lincoln' in it's bridge section) and the rags-to-riches, working-class struggles of 'US-A6G-18-70808 - Our Father's Sons'. Honestly, with the exception of the chain-rattling, god-fearing and slow-moving 'God's Gonna Cut You Down', it's clear why these other tracks didn't make it off the chopping-block. However, it's rare that you get a deeper look at a record you love dearly and get to glimpse some of its origins. And for that, I'm very appreciative.

Ten years later, these ''59 Sound' songs are still grand, still important and still special. It's why the U.S. band haven't given up on their second LP and why they galvanised it this year by celebrating it in full across multiple shows. The only record that comes close to being as well-written, as strong, as fun, and as accomplished in The Gaslight Anthem's discography would actually be this album's fantastic follow-up, 'American Slang' (2010).

And while we haven't had a new Gaslight Anthem record since the somewhat sub-par 'Get Hurt' (2014), I sure wouldn't say no to a new album. For if it's got a similar heart, soul and drive akin to that which breathes through 'The '59 Sound' - and that era of the band's career - then at the very least, it should be good. In any case, a decade on and I'm still hearing those rattling chains...