Ten years ago The Gaslight Anthem burst onto the punk rock radar with their no-holds-barred anthems of urgency and desperation. They played the songs for Kerouac’s mad ones, “mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time”. Five albums and one breakup later, frontman Brian Fallon reinterprets these themes through content nostalgia on his debut solo album Painkillers.
Fallon’s style has always been of earnest authenticity, and Painkillers allows him to truly stretch his legs as a songwriter. While upbeat and energetic, these are songs built around acoustic progressions and sparse arrangements which leave Fallon plenty of room to say everything he needs to. There is a general sense of loss to the album, but no evident grief. Instead Fallon seems to achieve an almost zen-like optimism, the kind of liberation that shines through when the weight of grieving is relieved. This is especially cathartic on the barroom stomp-along Smoke (“you just became something like some smoke that I tried too hard to hold”) and mid-album standout Nobody Wins, on which he offers a toast to an old love in case he’s already seen her for the last time. Painkillers is full of this type of warm, past-tense love song. Fallon seems to be looking back with a smile at the things he spent a decade singing about aggressively pursuing with Gaslight, which now rest behind him in memory. This is a man who’s chased enough ghosts to know that you can’t always ‘end up the lucky ones’, and sometimes it’s okay to blame it on the wind.
It has always been easy to compare Brian Fallon to his fellow Jersey-boy influence Bruce Springsteen. The likening holds true on lead single A Wonderful Life, with its driving rhythm, layered guitars and percussion, and an absolutely massive “woah-oh” laden chorus. The remaining tracks however tend to leave the grandiosity behind in favor of more Tom Petty-esque down-to-earth confessionals and simple, breezy accompaniment. Fallon has always displayed some folk leanings in his songwriting, and without Gaslight’s power his new batch of songs sways towards straight-up Americana. Whether or not that is a good thing is a matter of personal preference, but there’s no doubting that Fallon is firmly in his own element. He navigates the rustic, wide-open song structures with his heart on his sleeve; every lyric and twangy electric guitar lead carries weight and meaning. The presence of familiar elements to his lyrical style (girls, radios, old cars, “bleeding” as a metaphor for passion and emotion) give him an auteur type quality.
Overall, it’s hard not to feel like Painkillers is the album that Brian Fallon was always destined to make. After a decade of singing for the aforementioned mad ones, desire has turned to abandonment yet Fallon’s idyllic version of America and rock and roll underdog dreams persist. Painkillers is an album about coming to peace with the past, and appreciating it for the empowering freedom of remaining true to oneself. Fallon understands the pain that sometimes comes with having an insatiable lust for life, and his optimistic spirit shines bright for anyone who has found themselves having to go it alone.