I imagine I was a part of a large demographic that went into a frenzied panic when The Gaslight Anthem announced they were breaking up. The thought of losing out on the creative output of Brian Fallon and Co. was almost incomprehensible to us denim adorned, dive bar frequenting, perpetually brokenhearted, rock and rock revivalists. Eventually, after some uncontrollable weeping, we all took a deep breath and remembered: music is what Brian Fallon DOES. And whether it was Gaslight, the Tom Waits stylings of The Horrible Crowes, or the alt-country of Molly and the Zombies, we knew that whenever Fallon put out new material the world would be in for a treat. Boy, were we right.
Musically, “Painkillers” leans on the folk, alt-country, and Americana influences that Fallon grew up with, and one will encounter re-imaginings of some Molly and the Zombies’ songs. But don’t worry, that doesn’t mean Fallon no longer knows how to rock. For example, “Rosemary” is Fallon doing his best Tom Petty impersonation, mixing country and rock influences, resulting in one helluva sing-along. Along with glimmers of Petty, we also see stripped down, acoustic centric musings in the style of Bob Dylan, like the upbeat “Red Lights” and album closer “Open All Night”. It only makes sense that Butch Walker’s production fingerprints are all over this, and the spirit of Nashville, where the two perfected this heartland sound, permeates throughout the album. The sum of all these influences is a sound which is equal parts nostalgic and refreshing.
Regardless of tempo and style, Fallon continues to rope the listener in with his confessional storytelling. On the sparse “Steve McQueen”, he croons, “this life is only chains/It’s nothing like the colors in my dreams,” and on the barnhouse romp “Among Other Foolish Things” he belts, “And I’ve taken a dive on a smoky set of lies/I been so deceived and I’ve been the one lyin’.”This is classic Fallon: pulling back the bandages to show you his wounds. Conventions of intimacy be damned, he’s going to give you his whole heart, scars and all. Fallon has been criticized for this fatalistic retrospection, but on Painkillers he never seems self-indulgent, in fact quite the opposite. Fallon is the servant-troubadour and lines like, “Everybody’s hurt, and mine ain’t the worst/But it’s mine and I’m feelin’ it now” show his adeptness at relating to the audience through his own individual stories. Yet through recollections of lost love and romantic misdeeds, catharsis eventually arrives and you know that, somehow, you’ll be okay.
In fact, this optimism is the most striking and prevailing aspect of the album. It’s evident right from the chorus of album opener “A Wonderful Life”, in which Fallon unabashedly proclaims “I want a life on fire, gone mad with desire/I don’t wanna survive, I want a wonderful life.” Fallon’s still shouldering heartache, but he’s rejuvenated and missional. He’s not satisfied painting a picture of his past misery. He wants to set the stage for redemption and forward motion, for singer and listener alike. He may rely on familiar and romanticized imagery, but I dare you not to feel a sense of respite when he sings, “I’m alright/Janie, I don’t mind/I’ll get on just fine/On them long, long drives without you.”
This ability to craft a catchy tune and connect with the audience on a deeper level just might make Brian Fallon one of the best songwriters of our time. Sure, modern radio hit makers may go toe to toe with him in terms of concocting melody, but haven’t you gotten sick of hearing crescendoing anthems whose epic climaxes are only rivaled by their vacuous and vague counsel? What they can’t provide is the earnestness and honesty that Fallon provides. He is not everyone’s favorite singer, he’s YOUR favorite singer. His story, pain, and healing are yours, and it’s that rare type of symbiosis with the listener that makes his music all the more precious. And now, we melancholy punks can sleep soundly at night.
Label: Island Records
Release Date: March 11, 2016