Not too long ago, Brian Fallon sounded like he was broken. Get Hurt, The Gaslight Anthem’s fifth (and as-yet, last) album, sounded like a band on its last legs. Written and recorded in the wake of a grueling, never-ending tour schedule—as well as Fallon’s divorce from his first wife—Get Hurt felt like the end of something. When Fallon resurfaced on 2015’s Painkillers, his solo debut, he was retreating from the fallout of it all. “I don’t want to survive/I want a wonderful life” he sang in the first single, but the most revealing line came on the closing track: “You can’t make me whole/I have to find that on my own.” That song, and that album as a whole, were the sounds of a man whose recovery was still a work in progress.
Sleepwalkers, Fallon’s sophomore solo LP, is the natural conclusion to the trilogy that began on Get Hurt. It’s also the most wholly satisfying album of the three, blowing up an array of different influences to make the most vibrant, lively LP that Fallon has put his name on since the early Gaslight Anthem days.
Credit producer Ted Hutt with at least some of the change in direction. Hutt produced the album that made Fallon a star, The Gaslight Anthem’s The ’59 Sound, as well as the loose, soulful follow-up, American Slang. Hutt was also the man behind the boards for Elsie, Fallon’s 2011 side project album with The Horrible Crowes. Many fans consider those three albums to be Fallon’s peak, and there certainly seems to be some kind of alchemy between Fallon and Hutt that makes for compelling albums.
Sleepwalkers bears a certain resemblance to all three of the albums that Fallon has made with Hutt before. The classic R&B and soul influences that manifested on American Slang are more evident here than they’ve been since, especially on the horn-laced title track and the handclap-driven opener “If Your Prayers Don’t Get to Heaven.” The moody, dark atmosphere of Elsie comes back from time to time, too, like with the pre-verse whisper singing we hear on “Come Wander with Me,” or the powerful crescendo of the sublime “Etta James.” As for The ’59 Sound, it’s impossible to hear Fallon singing about Ferris wheels and not think of the album that made him a modern rock ‘n’ roll hero.
Like Painkillers, Sleepwalkers is an incredibly well-crafted album from a guy who has spent the last decade growing from a scruffy underdog into a seasoned vet. On Painkillers, Fallon mastered the art of writing breezy, hooky, sing-along jams—something that was often missing on the overwrought Get Hurt. With Painkillers, though, it felt like Fallon was trying to steer clear from anything that might sound too much like The Gaslight Anthem. He focused his talents on writing taut, concise pop songs with an Americana tinge, and largely avoided the character sketches and Jersey-bound mythologizing that had made Gaslight’s music so evocative. The songs were great, but the album didn’t have the same world-building charm of Fallon’s best.
With Sleepwalkers, Fallon lets himself stretch a little more. He cares less if the songs sound like his old band—and some of them do, like the riff-y “My Name Is the Night” or the sweeping “Neptune.” He also lets the songs breathe a little bit, filling them with instrumental breaks, extended outros, or direction-shifting bridges. On the last album, the longest song clocked in at 3:44. Here, the shortest song is 3:47.
Despite the longer songs, Sleepwalkers doesn’t feel like a long record. One reason is the pitch-perfect sequencing, which kicks things off at a breakneck pace (with the propulsive “Prayers” and the infectiously catchy lead single “Forget Me Not”) before settling into a more relaxed groove. The biggest reason the extra length works, though, is Fallon’s determination to tell the truth. After laying it all on the line with Get Hurt—and getting savaged by critics—Fallon seemed more guarded with his writing on Painkillers. Here, he’s back to being the hopeless romantic we all fell in love with on The ’59 Sound. Fallon recently remarried, and Sleepwalkers loosely tells the story. It’s a record about learning to let your guard down again after getting hurt, about picking up your broken pieces and finding the courage to give them to someone new. It’s earnest, but it’s beautiful, and also incredibly human.
The themes of the album coalesce most clearly on the penultimate pairing of “Neptune” and “Watson.” The former is the look back, at the recklessness of youth and where it leads. “What did it mean for all these years/I spent chasing them Ferris wheels/That were always gone like visions come the morning?” Fallon asks, calling into question virtually every word he sang on The ’59 Sound. But then he doubles back: “But there’s not one day I regret/And I would do it all again.”
“Watson,” meanwhile, might be the crux of the entire album, the song where the damaged man in the story decides to take one more chance with his heart. “I remember how we danced through the towns on the Thames/For one little night, I felt like I could be made new again,” he sings in the bridge. On the chorus, it’s “If you’re thinking you might want to stay/I don’t wanna go on my own.” Who does?
“For most of my sad life, I figured I was gonna die alone,” Fallon bellows on “Etta James,” a song just about as good as anything he’s ever written. Sleepwalkers is the sound of him realizing there was never any validity to that assumption. As listeners, we tend to gravitate toward heartbreak albums: records about broken relationships or lost loved ones or unbearable tragedy. We love hearing the exorcism of demons and ghosts splayed out on vinyl or tape—even if it came at great cost to the creator of the music we’re hearing. What’s underrated is the recovery album: records about getting better, moving on, being happy. Sleepwalkers is one of those, and every time it ends, it leaves me with a smile on my face. Because even if we never hear another Gaslight Anthem record, at least I know that, for Fallon, all is well.