[sic] Magazine

The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang

There is a certain mystique about what it is to be American. In the land of the free, the home of the brave, there is an overriding ideal that anybody can be a somebody. On the flipside, there is a chequered history framed by slavery and war, and there are the outsiders – the beatniks that reject the path most trodden by taking to the open road, the disenfranchised that, with wit and anger, inhabit the cracks in the American dream.

On American Slang, The Gaslight Anthem distil both histories with intensely redemptive commentaries coloured only by contemporary disaffection, and, along with the like-minded Hold Steady , they remain an indefatigable embodiment of that fractured dream.

Having been nurtured by the pounding rains which wash the Jersey streets (most specifically those that intersect at E and 10th), the 10 concise tracks that comprise American Slang could not be truer to the band’s roots. Nevertheless, in roaming freely from Bob Dylan to Motown , and again via Joe Strummer and The Replacements , American Slang has everything and nothing to do with today’s America.

Its predecessor, the superlative and chest-beatingly honest ’59 Sound, literally lived the dream of yesteryear with its tales of roaring cars, streams of girls, body modification, and 20th century hoisting of high-top icons. Yet, under walls of hooks and melodies it bubbled with punk-rock ambivalence – a product of the conflicting emotions felt by generations of Americans.

In this sense, American Slang is the most realistic of The Gaslight Anthem catalogue to date. Its blue-collar delivery is representative of America today, and it comes tempered by the band’s ear for hooks, those that chime out in the tattoo-referencing title track prove it, but gone are the absolute anthems of ‘59. Inevitably, the result is less pretty, less immediate, but rarely less powerful.

What appears on a first listen as little more than acceptable festival-rock by numbers slowly reveals itself to have subtle depths with repeated plays. “Orphans” and “Boxer” lead the charge, hitting the highway fast and clean, but they do so in cruise control rather than with raw hot-rod passion. The classic rock riffs that introduce and close “Old Haunts” nudge American Slang away from the band’s punk roots and bookend vocalist Brian Fallon ‘s most raspingly emotive contribution in the process. It’s a riff-heavy theme continued into the raucous sound of “The Spirit of Jazz”, a track which Fallon treats to his best mumbling borrowed direct from The Boss .

Yet, “Stay Lucky”, although complementary, is essentially a weaker retread of The Killers ‘ “When You Were Young”. The finger-click percussion and MOR smoothness of “The Diamond Street Choir” lack the urgency and excitement that The ’59 Sound nailed. The down-tempo jauntiness of “The Queen Of Lower Chelsea” lap towards the much-quoted Clash influence, but do so largely in indifference.

At American Slang’s close, with “We Did It When We Were Young”, the anthemic quality missing since ’59 reappears but under a very different guise. With Fallon’s vocal cracking and echoing, and with guitars set to painstaking slow-build, the final minute blowout is a direct call to get out the lighters.

Rather than the following in the footsteps of the raw debut, or the more polished ’59 Sound, American Slang takes small steps forward, and, it must be said, some back. Though, in moving forward, The Gaslight Anthem have aged and evolved with their nation, shifting indeed like slang on the lips of the youth that Fallon so frequently invokes.

More importantly, again in moving forward, the band are quietly becoming as iconic an American institution as their immediate influences have become. One more giant leap and it’ll be confirmed, but if they’re not careful, complacency may yet allow The Gaslight Anthem’s increasingly safe middle-class rock to take too much of an edge off their working-class appeal.

Advised downloads: “The Spirit of Jazz” and “Orphans”.

American Slang is out now on SideOneDummy .