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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Anthem of a revitalized romantic

 

When I first heard the Gaslight Anthem's gorgeous second album The '59 Sound way back in 2008, it immediately struck a chord. The lyrics were powerful, fearlessly ham-fisted and cliché-ridden, floating on ethereal and soft-spoken working-class punk rock.

Lead singer and guitarist Brian Fallon is the kind of foolish romantic trying hard to be a "real man" in a modern America where "real" men mostly work at desks, not on their hot rods or in the auto body shop. That prideful, wounded heart comes through strong in lines like, "For 10 long years I've been hustling around / trying to wash the sins and sweat from this brow."

The album became very special to me for all sorts of reasons. It rewarded my fetishistic obsession with ‘60s and ‘70s black music, name-dropping an overwhelming litany of jazz and soul veterans. It referenced tracks as dissimilar as Otis Redding's "Mr. Pitiful" and Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back In Town." It had a blues track named after a hippie cult novel. It shouted "Casablanca" like Fallon was trying to woo Ingrid Bergman herself.

Mostly, though, it appealed to the part of me that wanted so hard to believe that nice guys didn't always finish last and that a fatalistic romantic gesture like throwing a kiss-moist stone at a window frame would and could be rewarded.

In "Miles Davis & The Cool," Fallon delivers. "With a flick of a wrist and a turn of the key / you just fall in my arms." It's one of the album's most beautiful and poignant moments, when rough-necked hero who "never had a good thing" finally hears his sweetheart's voice, "sway sweet and slow."

To an immature 18-year-old kid who still believed in true romance, that track sounded like gold. Four years later, it was hardly remembered. Having lost the The '59 Sound in one of those iTunes library-wiping rituals I used to pull every couple of months, the idealistic sentiments found therein seemed pretty unsuited for my late-college lifestyle.

Fueled by alcohol and convenience, my cynicism had bloomed. As radical feministic riot grrrls had too great an impact on my understanding of power relations, I can't be so hard on myself as to admit to misogyny.

I certainly, briefly became an avid and evangelistic anti-romantic. Women were to be respected and fooled around with, but romance? That was kid stuff, a dangerous road best saved for that perfect and perfectly symmetrical, Nietzsche-quoting hipster chick that God-willing didn't exist.

Looking through the vinyl stacks at some record store a few weeks ago, I came across a copy of The '59 Sound and remembered how I had really connected with that album a few years before.

Putting it on later that night, the album immediately pulled me back into its seductive, old timey biosphere. Although the highly listenable music sucked me in, it was Fallon's raven haired thieves and temptresses that kept my head spinning on weird frequencies.

I played The '59 Sound daily for weeks, and before I knew it, I was seeing the world in cool blues. Everything gleamed like some infinitely more innocent reshoot of "Sin City." Even the women on the street looked a little different, and I was getting these aching longings like I hardly remembered. Not sexual urges necessarily, because those familiar pangs were never going anywhere. No, these yearnings were the kind that make you read Shakespeare and get you hurt.

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Seems to me that each record creates its own kind of moral system, has its own values and revels in its own remarkable style. Thus, Lady Gaga's Born This Way makes assumptions about what constitutes good music and proper human behavior in a very different way than even Lil' Wayne's Tha Carter IV would.

I pay more attention than most to the imagined worlds created by sound and words. Coming across a particularly attractive moral universe in a record will almost invariably assure my fandom.

My recent experiences with The '59 Sound suggest that a record also has the potential to influence the listener's values in a rather profound manner, but questions remain. What are the implications of the strong materialistic sentiments in modern pop music? Does free jazz have any potential for boosting creativity? Most importantly, when the hell does this crap wear off?

Send all feedback to Alex at seraphin@wisc.edu.

 

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