There aren’t many people in music right now who are under more pressure than Brian Fallon. Labeled as the torchbearer of the classic rock tradition upon the release of 2008’s The ’59 Sound—the sophomore album from his Jersey-based quartet, The Gaslight Anthem—Fallon has spent the better part of his career not just having to live up to the quality of his own albums and songs, but to his idols as well. A lot of people got into Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and Bob Dylan after hearing consistent references to each in Gaslight’s early music. In fact, Gaslight’s legacy got so entwined in the “inspired by Springsteen” narrative that fans started requesting Bruce songs at shows. Even Fallon’s side project, the Horrible Crowes, got whipped up in the Springsteen tornado, drawing at least a handful of parallels to Nebraska. Let’s be honest: figuring out a way to live up to an album as terrific as The ’59 Sound is hard enough. Doing it when everyone is comparing your stuff to albums like Born to Run and Damn the Torpedoes is just downright unfair.
In a weird way, then, Painkillers, Fallon’s first solo LP, is his opportunity to check all of that baggage at the door. Freed from the shackles of his bands and the fan expectations that go along with them, Fallon finally has the opportunity to sit back, slow things down, and re-evaluate. Solo albums have their own sort of mythos and preconceived notions, but they also come with the assumption that things are going to be different. No one’s approaching this album expecting another ’59 Sound, because it’s not a Gaslight Anthem record. No one’s expecting an Elsie part two, either, because The Horrible Crowes isn’t the name on the sleeve. By making a record under his own name, Fallon finally has the chance to stop being “Brian Fallon: the next Springsteen” or “Brian Fallon: the savior of rock ‘n’ roll” and to focus instead on being “Brian Fallon: the songwriter.”
With Painkillers, I had an opportunity that music writers don’t normally get: the opportunity to hear the album early, absorb the songs, fall in love with them, and then stop listening—all before putting pen to paper to write a single word in judgment of it. I got this album in my inbox before Christmas; I interviewed Brian about it at the beginning of February; then I let it sit for a full month before finally pushing play again. What I discovered when I returned to Painkillers last week was that it already felt like an old favorite. These songs—which straddle the line between folk, alt-country, and classic rock—are so innately well-crafted that they feel like they’ve been here for years. Once a student of all things rock ‘n’ roll, Fallon has grown as a songwriter to the point where, on Painkillers, he’s become the teacher, and there’s no bigger compliment that can be paid to him than that.
The ’59 Sound was a great record partially because it was so steeped in homage. If Bob Dylan hadn’t already used the title, Love & Theft might have been a fitting name for The Gaslight Anthem’s sophomore record, for how frequently Fallon pilfered lyrics wholesale from his favorite artists. It was a trick that could have easily become gimmicky or imitative in lesser hands, but Fallon used it to imbue his music with the vibrancy of a life lived with rock and roll as its guiding light. Listening to The ’59 Sound was thrilling not just because it was a great rock record, but also because it so perfectly captured what rock ‘n’ roll music can be when you love it to the point of insanity. It was a record for soundtracking your life, about music that soundtracked lives.
Painkillers is slightly less meta in its execution, but the spirit of Fallon’s songwriting hasn’t lost any of its color or life. Right from the glockenspiel chimes of leadoff track and first single “A Wonderful Life,” you can tell from every note of this album that it was a labor of love for Fallon. In our interview last month, the frontman-turned-solo-artist told me that, for his first go-it-alone project, he wanted to go back to his roots and channel the classic singer/songwriters he loved in his youth. Perhaps it’s because I started my musical journey in a similarly Americana-drenched place, but to me, this record really does feel like coming home. From dusky folk ballads like “Steve McQueen” and “Honey Magnolia” to raucous kick-drum stompers like “Smoke” and “Red Lights” (both repurposed here from Brian’s second side project, Molly and the Zombies), Painkillers finds Fallon resting in a pleasant traditional realm. Butch Walker, meanwhile, does career-best work in the producer’s chair, giving the songs enough gloss to reflect their classic rock and vintage pop influences, but also leaving in enough dust and dirt to honor the folk music tradition Brian was chasing.
Painkillers always sounds familiar and welcoming, but contrary to what a few fans and critics will say, it only rarely sounds like a Gaslight Anthem album. The clearest reference point is “Rosemary,” a rousing rock number that plays like a spiritual cousin to “Here Comes My Man” from 2012’s Handwritten. Like that song, “Rosemary” is penned from a female perspective. Also like that song, it builds to one of the biggest, most emotional payoffs in Fallon’s catalog. Following a scorching guitar solo from Walker, Fallon dives headlong into one of the best choruses he’s ever written:
Now I hear you crying over the phone
Where have all the good times gone?
Down in a glass of shouting matches
Lost in the songs you don’t write anymore
But hey, hey, hey, it’s alright
I ain’t trying to bring you down tonight
And oh, my, my, she said, ‘I don’t mind
‘Cause maybe someday they’re gonna love me back to life
The last two lines of the chorus change with every repetition, concisely chronicling the tortured loneliness of the song’s adrift title character. Here, though, they take on a profound and empowering punch. Accompanied by drums, pounding in double-time, and led by Fallon’s fiercest bellow, the song leaves a wreckage of doubt, confusion, and blood behind for the song’s piercing outro. “My name is Rosemary, and you’d be lucky to meet me/My name is Rosemary, and you’d be lucky if you get to hold me,” Fallon proclaims in the songs final moments. Regardless of what or who the song is about, those final lines send a universal message of freedom and hope. It’s tough to picture a setlist going forward where “Rosemary” doesn’t set the stage on fire.
Elsewhere, Fallon gets into his usual game of references and homage. Sonically, “A Wonderful Life” is his most Springsteen-indebted song in years; “Among Other Foolish Things” dismisses the Beatles’ old mantra of “All You Need Is Love” as…well, foolish; the highway-ready “Long Drives” references “Always on My Mind” and “Into the Mystic,” and has a knockout bridge about “a girl with a taste for the world and whiskey and Rites of Spring”; “Honey Magnolia” fits in nods to “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” and Bruce’s “Racing in the Street” before sunsetting with one of the most gorgeous guitar solos ever; and “Open All Night” actually shares a title with a Springsteen song—though its hopeful, wistful vibe gets Fallon far enough away from the forsaken plains of Nebraska to safely quote a Don Henley song.
On first listen, Painkillers is deceptively simple and surface-level. It plays with so much immediacy that it feels like Fallon’s “pop” record. After all, when was the last time he wrote songs as instantly catchy as “A Wonderful Life” or “Nobody Wins”? But the more time I’ve spent with this record, the more nuance and heart it has revealed to me. Fallon’s albums have always been about the ups and downs of life, from the Ferris wheel youth of The ’59 Sound to American Slang’s maybe-we-ain’t-that-young-anymore nostalgia, all the way to the post-divorce heartache of Get Hurt. Painkillers is no different, and as “Open All Night” reaches its final lines, it feels like Fallon is surveying his entire story from an older and wiser place. “And I will never know the town where you finally settled down/With the top back on the Cadillac and your sunglasses on/And you can’t make me whole, I have to find that on my own/But I held you baby a long, long time ago/When we were open all night long.”
That line, “I have to find it on my own,” feels startlingly candid and pointed, given both the status of Painkillers as Fallon’s first solo venture, and his recent comments about the uncertain future of The Gaslight Anthem. Even if there is no sixth Gaslight Anthem album, though, Fallon’s story is far from finished. This guy is one of the best songwriters of his generation, in any genre, and if his future albums—solo or not—are as full of pleasures as Painkillers, we have nothing to worry about. “I don’t want to survive,” Brian sings in this album’s stirring opening salvo. “I want a wonderful life.” Suffice to say that, if Painkillers does signify the end of something, it’s fitting that it does so with every ounce of Fallon’s signature romanticized hope still intact.
Great expectations, indeed.