Sunday, March 26, 2017

Matt's Favorite Summer Albums: The Gaslight Anthem - Sink or Swim (2007)

Just about five years ago I posted My Top Ten Summer Albums.  Those albums still remain in constant rotation during the warm months, but I have been looking forward to doing a followup article for some time.  A handful of albums have since jumped out at me enough to write about, so I've decided it's time for part two.  There are less entries in this batch, and the writeups turned out to be longer, so it seemed appropriate to roll them out one at a time.  Anyway, off we go...]

Alright, yeah, I could find a way to work any Gaslight album into any list.  They resonate with me in a way that no other band probably ever will.  Their intense debut LP is flawed in all the right ways, and its go-for-broke attitude makes for a fitting soundtrack to the finite window of infinite possibility that is proverbially summer.

The songwriting that would go on to define Gaslight Anthem is in its rawest form on Sink or Swim, but the unbridled urgency and desperation with which they storm out of the gates shines as the band’s backbone.  From the moment Boomboxes and Dictionaries kicks in, the album rages like a nautical storm that never lets up.  I Coul’da Been a Contender makes no secret early on what you’re in for- “There’s a dirty wind blowing in…/it’s heads or tails and heart attacks and broken dreams tonight”.  This is a storm of nostalgia and regret and desire and discontent and Brian Fallon charges headlong into it because he knows it’s all that he’s got. 

Along the way muscular guitar rhythms are juxtaposed with open-wound vulnerability.  Through brutal honesty and Springsteenian imagery, Fallon places himself as well as the listener in the underdog role of a fleeting moment where everything is magnified.  He has an insatiable lust for life, desirous of everything at the same time.  This makes his writing and persona refreshing and vital, but is a mindset which breeds suffering.  He channels haunting memories and indecision into visceral outbursts before leaving himself to bleed out in the album’s more plaintive moments (The Navesink Banks).  Fallon finds cathartic solace in late-album standout I’da Called You Woody, Joe.  Effectively a love song to punk rock, “I’da Called…” recounts Brian’s experience of first listening to The Clash.  It perfectly depicts the life-affirming magic brought by connecting with the perfect music when you need it most.  It is here that the clouds begin to part.  The scathing We’re Getting a Divorce, You Keep the Diner plays like a breaking point, with Brian ultimately cutting his losses.  As the ending gang-vocals ring out, they sound like a declaration of temporary victory in an unseen, internal war (“It’s alright man, I’m only bleeding man/stay hungry, stay free, and do the best you can”).  The harmonica and acoustic guitar that usher in closing track Red at Night provide a jarring change of pace, and signify that the storm, for now, is over.   The lyrics gradually morph from “Ain’t nobody got the blues like me” into “Ain’t nobody got a blessing like mine”, as Fallon seems to find the willingness to accept the bad with the good (“Seems a blessing’s so hard to see sometimes/Got a little clearer ‘bout dusk that night”).  As the old saying goes: “red sky at night, sailor’s delight”.  It closes the album on an optimistic note, the type of anti-closure with which the best summers always seem to end. 

This is not the confident, polished band that would release The ’59 Sound a year later and serve at the forefront of modern punk for the next several years.  This is the sound of a young band laying everything out, right here and right now.  Sink or Swim is what it sounds like making the leap to go after what you want because you’ve got nothing to lose.  There is naivety in idealism and the album sometimes seems to get caught in its own wake, but in its vulnerability there is authenticity.  This is the sound of a heart on the sleeve of a fist in the air.

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