The best way to summarize how Brian Fallon makes a living is that he “play[s] melancholy songs that somehow make us feel a whole lot better,” a phrase gifted to us from the song “Forget Me Not” on the new album Sleepwalkers. From “And in my head there’s all these classic cars and outlaw cowboy bands/I always kinda sorta wished I was someone else” on “High and Lonesome,” from his old band Gaslight Anthem’s 2008 The ’59 Sound, to “and I hope you find a handsome young man/who can love you like I, baby, just like I can” from the song “Misery” on the oft overlooked 2012 Hold You Up EP, all the way into his 2016 solo album Painkillers when he sang on the opening track “Don’t you want a life like we saw on the picture show?”
But if Fallon’s lyrical themes have been a constant, his musical accompaniment has been comparatively dynamic. He has played relatively heavy punk songs on Gaslight’s debut Sink or Swim, he has used wall of sound style production to great effect on their 2012 Handwritten album, and most recently he released perhaps the most remarkable Americana album since Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball when he brought us his first solo album Painkillers.
The funny thing is the Brian Fallon album I was most skeptical of, Painkillers, was the one that became my favorite. When I heard he was working on a solo album, after the disappointment of 2014’s Get Hurt, I was not enthusiastic. This was amplified by the knowledge that he was working with Butch Walker, who had produced the two Gaslight albums I really didn’t like. I was expecting something of a bridge between the late Gaslight years and whatever his sound separate from the rest of the band would be. Instead what I got was a complete departure in the best possible way. Drawing heavily on Rick Rubin’s Johnny Cash albums and a fair amount from The Band and Tom Petty’s acoustic albums, it was exactly what I didn’t know I wanted.
Sleepwalkers is the album I’d expected Painkillers to be. It revisits the motifs of picking sweet melodies on a fuzzy electric guitar in one channel with a steady rhythm guitar in the other. The riff on “Etta James” isn’t recycled from the chorus of “Biloxi Parish” off Handwritten with the distortion removed, but it certainly feels like it is. Sure, there’s an organ on “Little Nightmares,” but the tone and style of that guitar gives me an unshakable sense of de ja vous to “Stray Paper” from Get Hurt. The vocal melody on the title track isn’t quite the same as the vocal melody in the chorus of “She Loves You,” the bonus track on American Slang, but the variation is so subtle I had to listen to them back to back to make sure. I could go on but you’d be bored.
When I heard Sleepwalkers would be produced by Ted Hutt, the producer of my two favorite Gaslight Anthem albums, I was really psyched. I wanted to hear what that dynamic production style would bring to the Americana direction that Painkillers I thought Fallon was sticking to. The veer back towards late-era Gaslight material produced an album more like Butch Walker’s work is startling and unwelcome. Of the 12 tracks on the album, only “Proof of Life” invokes the style of the great last album.
Lyrically Sleepwalkers is nothing special either. While Painkillers was filled with gems of phrases like “So yes I will take those/and whatever else they give me/if it stops the nightmares/and probably won’t kill me” (“Red Lights”) and “and I feel just like I woke up/in somebody else’s skin” (“Smoke”), Sleepwalkers is distinctly lacking in imagination. “Now Etta James, hit that symphony/Cause she drips through my blood like a remedy” is just as poetic and romantic as you’d expect from Brian Fallon, but it feels awfully cliché. The lyric that is also the title of “My Name Is The Night (Color Me Black)” is fun but feels kinda silly in context.
Critics don’t seem to know what to do with Sleepwalkers. I’m not alone in my assessment that the album is nothing new, as Paste Magazine wrote he didn’t “tinker with the formula,” tho they seemed more positive on the album than me. Punknews.org applauded the album as an evolution from the Gaslight sound but didn’t once mention the evolved sound on Painkillers. AV Club’s review was positive but left out any context of Fallon’s greater discography. Overall, Metacritic has it ranked at a 69% as of time of writing, which isn’t embarrassing but it’s nothing to gloat.
If you’re new to Brian Fallon’s work, first, congratulations on making it through that wall of text. Second, I should emphasize that Sleepwalkers isn’t bad, it’s just disappointing. This is not the worst place to start to get an impression of the Fallon style (that would be Get Hurt from Gaslight Anthem) but I’d recommend you start with the album that made his career, The ’59 Sound, the follow up, American Slang, or the album I won’t shut up about, Painkillers, decidedly not Sleepwalkers.
Greg von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. His expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.