Painkillers proves that Fallon is farther from the mark than ever.
For those unfamiliar with Brian Fallon, he’s the frontman and mastermind of neo-soul-punk rock ‘n’ roll outfit The Gaslight Anthem (a band known for being considered punk’s response to Bruce Springsteen). Gravely, soulful vocals; lyrics about classic cars, lost loves and runnin’; set, for the most part, to up-tempo drum beats and distorted guitars. And, man, for three of their five full lengths, it worked so, so well. So well, in fact, that Fallon was catapulted to levels of notoriety he himself admitted he was never ready for. Now, despite the copious criticism of two not-so-good Gaslight records and a side-project called The Horrible Crowes, which was more or less a Gaslight record, Fallon has returned. And, this time, he’s brought with him a brand new album under his own name that sounds…like another Gaslight album.
Look, the guy’s got a style and a sound that breeds nothing but warm feelings of nostalgia, tears for losses we’ve all suffered and hooks that soar so high that they’re difficult to dislike. There’s no argument that his fans will be pleased because, frankly, the sentimentality and scope of his work could literally speak to anyone privileged enough to have the luxury of lost love and good-ol’-days pains as their only concerns. He tugs on them heartstrings then plays them like a fiddle on Painkillers, and, as such, he’s succeeded in sating his target audience. But, whether that audience is tiring of the same old sort of thing or not, it doesn’t excuse the regurgitation and slight alteration of melodies, song structures and instruments (here he uses acoustic guitars sometimes) that can be found on any of the other albums—yes, even the not-so-good ones—Fallon was involved with. And this time around his lyrical ideas and imagery that hurt so good just eight or nine years ago come off as Hallmark card and fortune cookie sentimentality that doesn’t have the sting or the insight of his earlier work.
There’s nothing in the world wrong with working with what you’re good at. But five seconds into opening track, “A Wonderful Life,” no matter if you’ve heard The Gaslight Anthem before on not, there’s something oddly familiar that you’ve definitely heard before. It’s pop-rock sugar sprinkled with bittersweet sadness. And, within the confines of the track, when Fallon sings, “I don’t wanna survive/ I want a wonderful life,” you buy in. But only for the three-minute runtime. After that, it’s almost as if you listened to an updated version of Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” without the bombast and stupidity. The lyrics, of course, don’t stoop to “I just want to live while I’m alive,” but, dear lordy, do both songs say just about the same thing: a message that is obvious, contrived and cheap.
The title track likens friendship to literal painkillers. “Among Other Foolish Things” concerns the steadfastness of a youthful, exuberant but ignorant outlook through the eyes of an older, wiser self. “Smoke” compares the loss of love to holding smoke too long in your lungs—eventually you’ll cough it out. And “Steve McQueen” references a man who much of Fallon’s audience may need to Google. Despite the paper-thin lyrics, the music is good. Fallon at points is a little bit country, at others he’s a little bit rock ‘n’ roll—twangy guitars that build to a rocking hook. And those hooks will bring a tear to your eye. He’s good at that. Damn good. But if we’ve learned anything about music, a catchy, biting hook is only a fraction of what a makes a good song. And, unfortunately, these songs are just fine. Nothing more. We’ve heard them all before. They’re the lesser, quieter sequels to earlier, better tunes.
Truthfully enough, after “Steve McQueen,” the rest of the album proves that “A Wonderful Life” is as good as Painkillers gets. There’s nothing glaringly, painfully wrong about the tracks. They’re fine. You’ll sing along, get them stuck in your head, all of that. But, really, that can’t be all you want from a guy who at one point could do no wrong. His songs meant something, made you feel something, gave you lyrics you couldn’t find on a meme. While these songs may sound like those that made Fallon worth listening to, they are not those songs. Not even a little bit. But, on the surface-level, they’re undeniably listenable. Even enjoyable. It simply lacks the depth, confidence and forethought that was lent to earlier material.
This marks the third record Fallon’s been attached to in which he seems to be struggling with the vision for his music. There’s no telling what will give him his groove back. But, unfortunately, Painkillers proves that he’s farther from the mark than ever. As a fan of the guy, as a fan of music, please, Brian, find your way home soon. You’re missed despite being an almost constant presence on the musical landscape.