Brian Fallon didn’t NEED to make Elsie. By the time this album arrived – the one and only record Fallon made with the side project he dubbed The Horrible Crowes – Fallon was already well on his way to rock star status…or, at least, it seemed that way at the time. His full-time band, The Gaslight Anthem, had released three albums and an EP in the space of three years and about two weeks – a remarkable run that saw the band gaining ground with each release. By the time Elsie arrived in September 2011, there was already buzz brewing about Gaslight Anthem LP4, and about how that album had the potential to launch Fallon and company into a whole new stratosphere. Just about anyone else would have taken a well-deserved break. Based on the exhaustion that would eventually crash The Gaslight Anthem, maybe Fallon should have. Instead, he teamed up with his guitar tech, Ian Perkins, and made one of the great left-turn albums in 21st century rock ‘n’ roll. Some days, I think it might just be his masterpiece.
Elsie was the first Brian Fallon album I ever loved right away. The ’59 Sound and American Slang are albums I have come to adore in every respect, but they were slow burns for me. I came to The ’59 Sound right at the same time I was falling into the world of Bruce Springsteen, and at the time, listening to it mostly just made me want to go listen to Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town. I fell in love with The ’59 Sound in the years that followed, to the point where I was highly anticipating 2010’s American Slang. But that album scanned to me, at first, as thrilling but slight. Its fleet 10-song tracklist and no-frills production style are what I view today as two of the top draws of the album, but they left me at the time with a distinct “Is this it?” feeling.
But Elsie was different. Elsie was like diving into the dark heart of a dream. From the first time I heard it, it felt like an immersive, experiential epic. I was obsessed, at the time, with the idea of a songwriter stripping things back and getting “serious.” Rock ‘n’ roll anthems were great, but I firmly believed that an artist’s greatest works were waiting to be found when they turned down the amps, scaled back the production, and bared their souls. Elsie felt like that kind of album: the Nebraska, maybe, or the Blood on the Tracks. The album where the larger-than-life rock ‘n’ roll persona cracks and you get to see the fragile, blemished humanity behind the curtain.
Looking back, I’m not sure how I ever thought Elsie was a glimpse behind the curtain. In reality, this album is an enigma, a maze, a house of mirrors. Fact and fiction always have a tendency to blur in Fallon’s music, but here, everything gets so blurry that it’s sometimes hard to even tell which way is up and which way is down. The album sounds like the story of one sleepless, otherworldly night, where your own exhaustion eventually puts your mind into a state where it’s playing tricks on you. It’s a night fraught with haunted memories and cheating lovers, with crime and with loneliness. “If I drove straight off this bridge/Only God and my baby would know,” Brian sings in “Cherry Blossoms.” In “Ladykiller,” he equates heaven with simply being able to sleep through the night. In “Blood Loss,” his first love isn’t just a heartbreaker, but an arsonist, or maybe even a murderer. And in “I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together,” Brian is the killer, unlikely to get into heaven for all the bad things he’s done. “I age by years at the mention of your name,” he sings in “Behold the Hurricane,” the closest the album gets to sounding like The Gaslight Anthem. By the end of the record, you feel like years may have passed in the narrator’s mind—even if everything that’s happened has just been that one long, confused, hallucination trip of a night.
The stark lyrical images in these songs are like fever dreams, trading all the blaring hope of the Gaslight records for something dark and bloody and tinged with nagging doubt. It’s a bold flex for Fallon, who by this point had shared the stage with Springsteen and seemingly been anointed the next in a long line of rock ‘n’ roll royalty. We already knew he could command a crowd, but here, he was showing how much of a poet he could be. The bridge of “Black Betty & The Moon”; the first verse of “Blood Loss”; the creepy menacing whole of “Cherry Blossoms.” These songs carry some of Fallon’s most vivid and evocative writing ever. Freed, for a moment, from trying to write songs that would go off in a club or an arena, Brian pens a one-of-a-kind Waits-ian collection of stories that you’d expect to hear from a clairvoyant drunk at 2 a.m. at the bar on a Wednesday morning. It’s bizarre, but also inexplicably beautiful.
Fallon would never make another Horrible Crowes record, and frankly, it’s fitting that Elsie stands by itself. Just like the characters in the songs, the album is defined by its crushing, irredeemable solitude. Flickers of the Elsie sound have cropped up here and there on his future records, like on “Underneath the Ground,” a curveball from final Gaslight Anthem album Get Hurt; or on “Hard Feelings,” the haunting penultimate standout from his Fallon’s most recent solo outing, Local Honey. But the albums Fallon made after this have either felt more tied to Fallon’s arena rock aspirations (Handwritten, bits of Get Hurt), his love for Americana songwriting (Local Honey, or the Full Moon Fever-esque anthems of his solo debut Painkillers), or the R&B influence he started embracing on American Slang (2018’s Sleepwalkers). Nothing else Fallon has done has quite recaptured the dark, bloody, broody feel of Elsie. Frankly, there’s really no other record quite like it, by anyone. And that’s kind of cool, because Brian Fallon has spent such a good chunk of his career being compared to big names from the past: to Springsteen, to Petty, to Joe Strummer; it’s somehow fitting that what makes his side project so special is that it is so totally unique to him.