Retro Review – The 59 Sound – The Gaslight Anthem

There’s no hope of objectivity in this review as such. This is my favourite band and my favourite album. But I’m here to tell you why that is.

The Gaslight Anthem convened in Los Angeles in 2008 to record this album, the follow-up to their debut, Sink or Swim. Guitarist Alex Rosamilia would later note in an interview that, “For Sink or Swim, we had a week or so and what we brought to the studio. For the last record we had about 5 weeks and quite the arsenal of gear to tear through. Which did lead to a couple ideas I don’t think we would’ve had otherwise.” I’m not sure there’s a better description of the raw, rich, power of this album than that. While Sink Or Swim introduced some of the hallmarks of Gaslight, be it the power rock sound or Fallon’s Jerseyite Springsteen-influenced poetry, one can’t escape, on relistening, that it sounds very much like a lo-fi album by a band at it’s very beginnings, still finding it’s way.

It’s perhaps surprising then that the second album became as seminal and lush as it did. After all, for many bands, the second album is a tough exercise – still trying to find their sound, still unsure of their voice. The 59 Sound sounds nothing like this. It’s rough, tough, and powerful, and the voice has distilled into a powerful roar of wistfulness and hope. It’s a band sure of themselves and sure of the songs, and for a newcomer to their music as I was at the time, it’s a real exercise in grabbing the listener by the balls and taking them on a journey. The whole album feels like being a young adult, driving a very fast car down an open highway, with all the promise of youth open to you.

If that is the case, however, the opening three songs are the immediate smash of the accelerator. The album opener, the runaway, fast-paced Great Expectations, would be a tremendous start to an album for almost any rock band, but for one still, ultimately, finding it’s feet, it’s truly incredible – a punk rock smash with emotional overtones, Fallon’s lyrical mastery already apparent via the continued refrain ‘everybody leaves so why, why wouldn’t you?’ – a wonderful song that leads into the most enduring of Gaslight’s hits – The 59 Sound, the album’s title track. There’s some evocation of Springsteen here, at least in my mind – as the tale of what seems to be a death via car crash while running away at the pace of the song evokes memories of The River’s ending track Death On The Highway. Away from the lyrical themes, it’s a soulful, emotional punch of a song, and I would say it still remains top of most Gaslight fans’ list of favourite songs to this day.

The opening barrage ends, appropriately, with the third song, Old White Lincoln. Prefab Sprout would have an aneurysm about the amount of cars and girls mentioned in this album. Anyway, Lincoln is lyrically wistful, and probably one of the first Gaslight songs that really transferred well to the acoustic format when used for various live sessions in later years. The full range of Fallon’s lyrical romanticism is to the fore here, lamenting an old friend no longer around for reasons unknown. I feel sure that, just as I did and do listening now, everyone can feel someone when this song plays. It’s not quite as good as the prior two tracks, but it’s part of one of the best three-song opens to any album in my view, and it deserves its place, fitting perfectly as it does in the powerful, driving, sentimental rock that this album is.

The most-overtly Springsteen reference on the album, High Lonesome, continues that trend, set off by the driving drums of Benny Horowitz. While musically similar to the rest of the album, lyrically I think this is some of Fallon’s finest work on the album, whether referencing Springsteen in at night I wake up with the sheets soaking wet, it’s a pretty good song, baby you know the rest… or the wham line of I kind of always sort of wished I was someone else. The song seems aptly titled after a 50s film, harking back to the murkiness and mystique of our dreams in the night – at once smoky, nostalgic, and romantic, but juxtaposed with the lyrical punch of a dreamer fighting reality.

Having now ventured into the dark, murky feel of a 50s film, the 50s references, prevalent throughout the album, continue to rain down on us, via the aptly titled Film Noir. After the punch in the face of the opening quartet, this feels like something of a cooldown song, but it’s no worse off for this, and is very welcomed. Soulful, almost crooner-like slow melody at the start gives way to a bittersweet song, referencing more icons of the past, in particular Marilyn Monroe. I think most songs can mean whatever you want them to mean, but this seems almost grandiose in its portrayal of romantic drama and a failing relationship. It fits perfectly with the emotional mood of the album, but is uniquely lacking in optimism for a Gaslight song.

Miles Davis & The Cool seems to have all the optimism by contrast – a cheerful, upbeat song, invoking all the romanticism of young love, requited or not. The yearning and pleading of Don’t wait too long to come home invokes every single romantic dream any of us infatuated by young love have ever had. On an analytical listen, the thumbing of nose at disapproving adults and the belief that love could conquer all makes this probably the closest to a Rosalita, Come Out Tonight that the Gaslight Anthem ever wrote, and it’s all the better for it.

The Patient Ferris Wheel is a crowd-pleasing power stomp, and the backing vocals of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones Dicky Barrett adds a uniqueness to it. It’s probably the most straight-ahead rocker on the album, an absolute tour de force live (which doesn’t quite come through as well on the record), and it brings the power back after a brief cool-off from the last two songs.

By contrast, Casanova, Baby! almost feels quasi-country in melody and rhythm. Even the lyrical urging from Fallon for the girl to cast away her life and run away with him, while feeling very Springsteen-esque, is classic early to mid Eagles in its simplicity – arranged differently and written in the era the album evokes, this could’ve been a massive crossover country hit. It’s a good song, and possibly the sweetest song on the album, fitting well into the nostalgic, romantic, yearning feel of most of the songs.

Even Cowgirls Get The Blues might be the only average song on the album. While soulful and melodic, it’s a fairly plodding number, although at least lyrically, it feeds in nicely, with the lament of maturation and growing up providing an interesting coda to Casanova a song prior. Maybe I’m down on this song more than others because of it’s realism versus the prior romanticism – it feels like the loss of optimism, an acceptance almost, that youth might be over, and the strength of all the feelings and emotions we once had are now tinged by cynicism and worn down by understanding and life’s unique punch. Fallon’s strength is to be able to lift an at-times middling song (not that there are many in the Gaslight catalogue) to good or better with his lyrics. He tries manfully here and largely succeeds.

Meet Me By The River’s Edge is a return to the rockers, invoking multiple Springsteen comparisons, not least no surrender, my Bobby Jean. Whether this is Brian poking fun at the amount of Springsteen comparisons by lazy reviewers by outright waving them in a listeners face, I’m not sure, but it’s a portrayal of a confident band and man that they can look these comparisons in the eye and write a song that could’ve come off any classic Springsteen album and been beloved. This listener certainly believed in love and the idea that your true love would run after you in the rain and tell you that they loved you when he listened to this. Writing now, it’s hard not to feel the same way. While lacking in subtext, sometimes great music doesn’t need subtext. This song says love me, be not afraid, meet me there tonight, and we’ll start our life together. Much like Miles Davis earlier, the optimism shines through this song, and it benefits from it.

Here’s Looking At You, Kid is the Wham Line of the album. Up until now, there’s largely been optimism in the face of all. This song feels Cohen-esque in it’s lamenting of life’s loves, losses, disappointments and heartbreaks, in some way. It’s heartbreaking, emotional, and chilling in equal measure. I think this song is a complete masterpiece, and if Fallon wrote ten more albums I don’t think he could capture the lyrical genius and depth of feeling that his writing here evokes. I could write thousands of words on this song, but for the sake of brevity of the article, I won’t. Just listen to it, and tell me it doesn’t evoke some memory of something long-lost for you. It did for me, before I even knew what loss was. Somehow, though, in the midst of all the emotion, it somehow still finds a way to make you believe in success, love, and optimism overall. The best song on the album, for me.

Having drained us of all emotion and tears with the prior song (including this writer, right now), The Backseat is a wonderfully upbeat ode to friendship and love. If you never let me go, I will never let you down became words I lived and still live by to this day. An upbeat thrash and crash of all those youthful, energetic emotions, the feel of finding a place to belong, the feeling of mattering after so long – they all combine to form one of my favourite songs on the album, and a perfect coda at the end of it all. A reminder that no matter what is thrown at you, no matter your emotions and feelings, if you have someone you can rely on, you can go anywhere.

The album fades out, and you have a smile on your face, and that’s what it is about this album. It’s somehow modern and nostalgic at the same time. It’s a truly powerful, modern guitar music influenced album, yet somehow still has the tinge of nostalgia. That probably comes from Fallon’s lyrics and the impact on the listener, which is somehow augmented by the rock and roll style of the music. It’s their masterpiece for me, because ultimately, it proved not just to be a product of the band’s time, but a snapshot of mine too.

To this day, no matter where I am, what I’m doing, or how down my life is, the album brings me to a place. Some of those places are things I never had; summer romances, night drives with people who I love, and who love me; or some things I did have. Hope. Optimism. The feel that life’s out in front of you. That’s what this album represents to me. and that, more than anything, is why Gaslight Anthem’s The ’59 Sound is unabashedly one of my favourite albums of all time. I think that’s true for almost every Gaslight Anthem devotee, and anyone who loves this album. When it comes down to it, that’s music’s power. At it’s most seductive and inescapable, it has the ability to transport people to places they’d never been before, make people feel feelings they hadn’t before; but more than anything, many years after the fact, they can put you back in the place you were then.

I was glad to put myself in this place again. Thanks for reading if you got this far.

5/5. Still one of the greatest albums of all time.

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