I watched Brian Fallon play “A Wonderful Life” on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah the other night, and although Trevor’s questions after the song seemed shallow and awkward, Fallon’s performance was anything but. Painkillers, his first solo album, can seem at times slightly off-putting considering how fleshed out The Gaslight Anthem can be. But seeing Brian standing at the mic, the fire in his eyes as he sang, with three other guitarists behind him, it became immediately clear that Painkillers is a work of passion and deeper than what appears on the surface.
By “off-putting,” I don’t mean any harm, but rather that on first listen, it sounds like Brian Fallon played it safe: simple beats, xylophone melodies, Americana-esque guitar ballads that tip-toe the line between folk and indie rock. Essentially, The Gaslight Anthem stripped of the heavy guitar.
But Painkillers is an intricately woven fabric. With the essential pop songs, such as “A Wonderful Life”, the songs are created in a fashion that helps the music tell the story with a touch of country-infused pop. The central melody for “Painkillers” is a simple guitar riff that repeats throughout the song as though you’re staring up at the ceiling and watching the room spin in circles as Fallon sings, “And we wanted love like it was a drug / All we wanted was a little relief, and every heart in between / They were painkillers to me”, hiding the chorus of backing vocals and intricate slashes of the guitar.
Similarly, “Smoke” is essentially centered on the crisp beat light taps of the drum, and a swell of hand claps that diminish the guitar and punctuated piano as though lost in a foggy room. The slides of the electric guitar over the hand claps has a wonderful country-esque touch that seems to lift the fog as Fallon sings soberly, “And the black clouds came and darkened all our insides / There were newspaper clippings with horrible headlines / Of doom and despair and your name and my name said / ‘Who will save you from the truth of the matter, that your love, though like gold, is gone?’”
Not everything sounds like an experimental indie song though. “Steve McQueen” is a heartfelt acoustic ballad, with the gentle tap of the snare and egg shaker almost louder than the guitars and somber piano, as Fallon reminisces of faltered dreams. “Open All Night” is a bluesy country song that finds the conclusion of a loose story woven throughout the album of returning to the lights of large cities and the realization that the girl he’s been chasing is gone, for the better of both of them. “And I will never know the town where you finally settled down / With the top back on a Cadillac and your sunglasses on/ And you can’t make me whole, I have to find that on my own”.
“Rosemary”, one of the album’s true highlights and one of the best songs Fallon has ever written, is a rampaging rock song with sweet xylophone spread across the bridges. It is a back and forth story of a couple essentially discovering that they’re falling apart, and lead character Rosemary finding her self worth through the experience amidst garage rock shouts of “Hey! Hey! Hey!”
What Brian Fallon has done with Painkillers is pull off the best aspects of what was accomplished with The Gaslight Anthem and strip it down to a minimum. The guitars are quiet, the beats simple and the lull of the shaker takes precedence over flashy guitar solos. But what it makes room for is emotional storytelling. Anyone used to Gaslight’s rock might need a little coaxing into the softer tone of the album, but the passion on this album is something that couldn’t have been done any other way: Springsteen inspiration blasting at full force.
by Kyle Schultz