“I’m packing up, I’ve gotta move”, The Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon declares in the opening seconds of his sophomore solo album ‘Sleepwalkers’, “I’m making a change”. After two overtly melancholic outings in a row – his former band’s dour swansong ‘Get Hurt’ and his reflective solo debut ‘Painkillers’ – the record’s stylish, Motown-inflected opening track ‘If Your Prayers Don’t Get to Heaven’ seemingly doubles as an optimistic mission statement and a signal that, a decade after his breakthrough with the modern classic ‘The ‘59 Sound’, the New Jersey native is ready to branch out and inject new life into his distinct brand of road-worn Americana.
Opening with finger clicks and an jaunty, Mod-sounding bassline, the song is characteristic of the sonic and thematic experimentation that permeates much of the album’s twelve tracks; specifically, a flirtation with all things retro and British, whether it’s lyrical references to London tube stations and the Beatles, or peppering his usual no-frills rock ‘n’ roll with raucous T. Rex riffs (‘My Name is the Night’) and ‘Wonderful Tonight’ type lead breaks (‘Watson’). It’s a bold and unexpected left-turn for a man who made his name singing about Cadillacs, carnivals and the 4th of July, but the result is some of his most inspired music in years.
Lead single ‘Forget Me Not’, for example, is a barnstorming slice of peak Fallon and categorically the most joyous thing he’s released since the ‘American Slang’ era. A rowdy rocker about jealously from beyond the grave, the track is simultaneously tongue-in-cheek, earnest and hopelessly romantic (“I wish I took the time to miss you/while we were sitting only right there, under heaven,” he reflects) and boasts a radio-ready chorus that will no doubt cement it as a live staple for years to come.
Another early highlight, the epic, starry-eyed ballad ‘Etta James’, recalls his moody side project The Horrible Crowes with its slow-burning pace and raw emotional delivery. Over a bed of twinkling, swirling guitars, the narrator gives thanks for finally finding a companion after a life of loneliness (“she drips through my blood like a remedy” he howls, channelling ‘Joshua Tree’ era Bono, “and for most of my sad life, I figured I was gonna die alone”). It’s a moving sentiment, and one made all the more devastating by the fact that, by the time the bittersweet “at last, my love has come along” coda emerges, the restrained delivery almost gives the impression he’s too jaded and weary to properly enjoy his newfound love.
Thankfully, the jangly, upbeat ‘Her Majesty’s Service’ follows, covering the listener like a warm blanket and lifting the mood with its quietly optimistic “I’m waiting on a big love, baby” refrain, while ‘Proof of Life’ is the kind of touching, low-key acoustic strummer that Fallon can write in his sleep at this point, in the vein of past fan favourites ‘Here’s Looking at You, Kid’ and ‘Break Your Heart’. ‘See You on the Other Side’ treads similar territory, recycling musical elements from early Gaslight track ‘Red at Night’ into something altogether more mature and engaging.
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Elsewhere, the biting power pop of ‘Come Wander with Me’ includes the latest of the singer’s many acerbic references to his fatherless childhood: “I never knew mine, so I bandaged the hurt”, he seethes over nimble, echoed guitars, “I pretended that my daddy was a bank robber”, before returning to more familiar territory with its urgent, world-beating chorus.
The soulful, saxophone-laden title track, meanwhile, sees Fallon flirt with jazzy balladry with outstanding results; in the right setting, it’s surprising how well the singer’s raspy growl translates from gruff, punky bark to Louis Armstrong croon without losing any power or authenticity.
The majestic, brooding ‘Watson’, however, is the album’s true standout track, playing like a rain and whiskey soaked love letter to London that serves as an emotional and thematic climax to the album. A cinematic and heart-wrenching ode to “the one that got away”, the song pictures Fallon walking around the British capital at night collecting his thoughts.
“Lord, I worry when I get old, I’ll be lonesome/chasing all the umbrellas in London/every footstep in Angel station/for even a scent of her perfume again”, goes the lighters-in-the-air chorus, with an intensity that keeps increasing with every repetition – before melting away with cries of “hang on, Watson”, ostensibly a nod to London’s most famous (fictional) detective.
There’s a constant feeling on ‘Sleepwalkers’ that, second time round, Fallon is much more comfortable in his own skin as a solo artist, allowing him to build on the promising (if safe and at times workmanlike) ‘Painkillers’ to deliver a consistent and well-crafted record that manages to sound comfortingly familiar, curiously retro and fiercely modern all at the same time.
‘Sleepwalkers’ is out now via Island Records. The full track listing is …
- If Your Prayers Don’t Get To Heaven
- Forget Me Not
- Come Wander With Me
- Etta James
- Her Majesty’s Service
- Proof Of Life
- Little Nightmares
- My Name Is The Night
- See you On The Other Side