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Album Review: Brian Fallon - 'Painkillers'

17 March 2016 | 4:22 pm | Staff Writer
Originally Appeared In

The Gaslight Anthem frontman creates a stellar soundtrack for soul searching.

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The notion of nostalgia is one that’s intrinsically strong. There’s a reason why the most prolific and loved song-writers turn to their young and turbulent years, in order to strike at the deep, emotional chords that run fast and parallel through everyone’s youth. For Brian Fallon, front man for New Jersey rockers The Gaslight Anthem, the last decade has seen him travel the world and break his heart wide open on stage every night, over tales of forlorn love and blissful ignorance. With the 2014 release of Gaslight’s fifth studio-album, ‘Get Hurt’, receiving a largely lukewarm reception, and the band announcing that they’d run out of steam last year and would be taking an ‘indefinite hiatus’, Fallon was left with the obvious option of pushing on all alone. The result of which, is his début solo record, ‘Painkillers’.

Playing to his strengths, and the aforementioned power of youthful nostalgia, Fallon delivers a pleasing mix of alt-country barn-burners and heartfelt acoustic ballads on ‘Painkillers’, returning to a warm, personal and vulnerable sound that long-time Gaslight fans will recognise from past releases like ‘Sink or Swim’ and the seminal ‘The ’59 Sound’. Now, it might come off as trite to compare Fallon’s solo output directly to the Gaslight back catalogue, but what you realise upon listening to ‘Painkillers’ is that it’s almost impossible to divorce the moods and textures of Gaslight from Fallon’s music. Considering his assembled backing band for this solo material is a veritable collage of all his musical endeavours, sporting members from The Gaslight Anthem, The Horrible Crowes and Molly and The Zombies, it’s only fitting that the album reflects the better qualities of all of these groups and also defines a singular approach that Fallon can comfortably call his own.

Lead single ‘A Wonderful Life’ bursts right out of the gate with a folk rock ballad, hinging off a lyrical refrain that finds Fallon plaintively yearning, “I don't wanna survive/I want a wonderful life.” The title track soothes over warm, warbled guitars and uses a drug reference to allude to something both literal and metaphorical, linking back the record’s larger themes of relationships, music and life as that ‘drug’ we can all find addictive. Co-written with engineer and producer Butch Walker (Weezer, Dashboard Confessional), the title track is imbued with a soft and sepia undertone, one that also permeates the entire record and renders the use of wider instrumentation (organ, pedal-steel guitar, banjo, glockenspiel, twelve-string acoustic guitar, mandolin, piano, etc.) as something organic and natural, rather than forced or pretentious. ‘Smoke’ and ‘Steve McQueen’ explore the paradox of painting vivid pictures with fleeting and transitory imagery, the former making use of jangly guitars and a handclap-stomping beat, while the latter sees Fallon switch his trademark pack-a-day, gravel throat for a resonant, Bob Dylan-esque vocal timbre and some haunting arrangements.

The second half of the record picks up the pace, with ‘Nobody Wins’ a mid-tempo banger that’s upbeat in sound, despite its painfully pessimistic lyricism ("If I never see you again/You can blame it on the wind.") and ‘Red Lights’ hitting the love-ballad-meets-banger combo, sporting a strong Lucero vibe. Standout track ‘Rosemary’ sees Fallon get profoundly personal, with an allegory of a lonely, love-struck woman, lying beside “empty sheets”, being "down in a glass, of shouting matches" and "lost in the songs they don't write anymore". As she laments that "someday they’re gunna love me back to life", we’re left to wonder if maybe this is a tale on the transient and fickle nature of the rock'n'roll industry, and the absence Gaslight’s hiatus has perhaps left inside Fallon. ‘Long Drives’ brings back the drug references with a dash of pedal-steel guitar, before a standout vocal bridge in the middle, that makes you wish you were wild and free once more, "Last night/I remember being seventeen/I met a girl with a taste for the world/of whisky and Rites of Spring." The album closes with the bluesy, jukebox track ‘Mojo Hand’ and ‘Open All Night’, a sombre song of desire, which pulls out all the stops with call-backs to wayfarers, top-down Cadillacs, local bars, broken hearts and the names of American cities rattled off like long lost lovers.

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Speaking to Rolling Stone recently, Fallon spoke about stepping out on his own and how he deals with the perceived pressure. "I try not to think about it too much. Because it's all on you. There's no shielding." And it’s that awareness of his own fragility and exposure that makes the songs on ‘Painkillers’ pull hard with the weight of failed relationships, famed achievements and distant dreams. In the tradition of great storytellers like Bruce Springsteen and Phillip Roth, Fallon’s depiction of humble, working-class life, fraught with fleeting moments of indecision, ache, longing and regret, comes off as a true American pastoral. Fans of any of Fallon’s prior musical outfits will find a lot to love on this record, and that appeal is sure to stick around after many repeated listens, just like all those ‘what could have been’s’ that rattle around inside your head.

1. A Wonderful Life

2. Painkillers

3. Among Other Foolish Things

4. Smoke

5. Steve McQueen

6. Nobody Wins

7. Rosemary

8. Red Lights

9. Long Drives

10. Honey Magnolia

11. Mojo Hand

12. Open All Night