The Gaslight Anthem has always understood that rock music is for the kids. The band’s songwriting captures some of the most essential and emotionally swollen moments of youth: first time heartbreak, good-hearted Saturday-night mischief, and that oh-so-adolescent itch to escape whatever town one calls home. It’s the kind of stuff Cameron Crowe movies and Bruce Springsteen songs are made of.
On American Slang, however, the Gaslight Anthem has grown up a bit, and their topics of interest are more muddied. Album closer “We Did It When We Were Young” disposes of the earnest hopefulness of the band’s traditional sentiments as silly, meaningless nostalgia: “When we were lions, lovers in combat/Faded like your name on those jeans I burned/But I am older now, and we did it when we were young.” It doesn’t come close to the highway-yearning explosion of, say, 2008’s “Old White Lincoln”: “And I always dreamed of classic cars and movies screens/And trying to find some way to be redeemed/Baby darling we will be, in the cold, cold ground.” Two years ago, the band recorded an indisputable love letter to Miles Davis’s debut, Birth of the Cool with “Miles Davis & the Cool,” but the first words you hear on the new track “The Spirit of Jazz” are a brisk “The cool is dead, baby/Go on to sleep.” Compared to the former song’s fairy-tale imagery, it’s quite a departure, and surprisingly frank.
The band’s maturation also finds them reaching deeper into American musical traditions, instead of their usual surface-level references to the Cure, the Boss, and the blues. The Gaslight Anthem has always made lyrical references to Memphis soul and string-soaked Motown, but on American Slang they actually incorporate that influence into their music. “The Diamond Church City Choir” isn’t just a song written about soul, it is a “soul song,” with frontman Brian Fallon’s voice adopting a crinkled, smoky texture, which is rather striking considering the general public only knows him for his hoarse Strummer impression.
With American Slang, the Gaslight Anthem takes another step away from their riff-punk past, leaning more heavily on their classic-rock influences and letting their snotty, Warped Tour tendencies take more of a backseat than ever before. It may not have the surging immediacy of The ‘59 Sound, but it’s a testament to a band that, despite all the growing up they’ve done, are still incredibly relatable. As Fallon sings on “The Queen of Lower Chelsea”: “Did you grow up lonesome and one of a kind?/Were your records all you had to pass the time?” Yes, and thanks for reminding us we aren’t the only ones.