Brian Fallon – Painkillers

The notion of authenticity in popular music is something that has bedeviled critical types for time immemorial. But so what? We all know just what an urgent and productive undertaking criticism is, right? So let’s get on with our dancing about architecture. Drop it while it’s hot, yo.

It’s pretty much a given, when you think about it, that popular music is all-surface-no-substance, artifice, a ruse. Why? Because pop performers are selling themselves – or at least a prefab rendition of “the self” – as much or more than they’re selling songs and/or albums.

In genres like country music/Americana, trap music/crunk/gangsta rap, metal/hardcore and especially “heartland rock,” the onus is on the performer to somehow prove that they’re “down with the working man,” that they’ve got street cred, that they’re, aargh, “keeping it real.”

This leads us to today’s conundrum. Consider the following scenario.

Let’s say you’re got a dead end job – you know, the kind of grind that Brian Fallon sings about. And let’s say your employer gives you a promotion that requires you to do twice the amount of work as before. There is no pay raise for this promotion. But your new title is sanitation engineer, where before it was janitor. So your self-esteem goes through the roof. You’re delivering “the man” twice the labor for exactly the same salary. But you’re fucking stoked about it.

So, are you empowered by the new job – even though your burden is doubled for no additional monetary reward? Well, if the new title makes you feel better about yourself, then the answer is still yes. If you feel like you’re empowered, then you are empowered. However you experience something, well, that’s how it is. And that’s real.

With his band The Gaslight Anthem, New Jersey’s Brian Fallon has been singing an emo rendition of the Working Man’s Blues that at least seems real for well over a decade. And as skeptical as I’ve been about the post-millennial, suburban-punk-with-his-heart-on-his sleeve (tattoos) persona that Fallon has most capably wrought, I must admit that this guy has indeed delivered a spate of sturdy, convincing and memorable songs that would nestle comfortably alongside those of Jason Isbell, Petty, and The Boss Himself, Saint Bruce.

So I was a little bit vexed when Fallon announced that The Gaslight Anthem was on an “indefinite hiatus” and that he’d be releasing a solo album. After all, Brian Fallon pretty much is The Gaslight Anthem – so why (and how) could he take a hiatus from himself?

Relax, Gladys. Fallon has by no means taken a hiatus from himself. His debut solo album, Painkillers, is for all intents and purposes another Gaslight Anthem album – or should I say that Painkillers is The Gaslight Anthem done one better?

Basically, Painkillers is a slightly more streamlined version of the chunky, denim-clad rock The Gaslight Anthem (and, thus, Fallon himself) has long since perfected. But Fallon hasn’t smoothed his rough edges: He’s honed them. Painkillers delivers the sonic punch that Fallon’s songs have always deserved. And his songwriting is as good or better than anything he’s done before (with the possible exception of The 59 Sound, that is).

Basically, Painkillers is big budget, meat-and-potatoes rock for America’s HUGE population of middle-class suburbanites that like to think of themselves as Regular Joes – and that’s really not necessarily a bad thing, either. Hey, the bulk of American lives may not exactly be existences of quiet desperation – but everybody (and I mean everybody) is dragging around a bundle of regrets, a pocketful of sorrows and a broken dream or three. This is the (not so) Great American Story. And this is the grist for Fallon’s songs. “Everybody’s hurt, and mine ain’t the worst, but it’s mine and I’m feeling it now.”

In the final analysis, the authenticity of the performer/songwriter, or lack thereof, is really not what matters. Fallon is an overtly commercial artist striving to deliver the Great American Novel Song, writ large. And most of the time he’s right on target. Whether or not the Beautiful Losers of Fallon’s folklore are based on lived experience or canny observation is immaterial. Painkillers’ 14 anthems evoke real emotions – and that’s about as real as it gets.

Brian Fallon