Given the weary, needlessly clunky nature of Get Hurt, the time for hiatus last summer seemed to be right for The Gaslight Anthem. To call their last album a bump in the road would be all too complementary, and some time away would undoubtedly be beneficial for all involved. But somewhat surprisingly – especially so soon after – frontman Brian Fallon has come out with his debut solo full-length Painkillers. Still, there’s no point in complaining, as this album is the ideal detox following Get Hurt.
Painkillers sees Fallon revert back to the nostalgia-drenched Americana of The Gaslight Anthem’s best work, but a more pared back variation. It certainly feels more intimate than his main project, and as such, allows his inimitably heartstring-tugging songwriting shine through. Twinkling opener A Wonderful Life and Nobody Wins see the return of that glint of sepia-toned romance in Fallon’s eye, while Steve McQueen feels especially personal in its gentle acoustic plucking and sinewy cello line. A large part of it is very familiar, but it’s this familiarity that makes this album such a strong palette cleanser after The Gaslight Anthem’s mediocre swan song.
But the main problem with Painkillers comes in its execution. Whereas most of Gaslight’s best work was propelled by the bombast of Springsteen at his stadium-conquering best, the more confined, reserved nature of this album occasionally blurs the lines between poignancy and blandness, so much so that it’s sometimes hard to differentiate. But while instrumentally, the likes of the title track and Honey Magnolia would nestle alongside any of the middle-of-the-road fare filling the Radio 2 playlist, it’s ultimately Fallon’s abundance of charm and personality that separates Painkillers from the painfully dull likes of James Bay in the compositional stakes. Still, even a character as likable as Fallon’s isn’t enough to save the dull closing duo of Mojo Hand and Open All Hours from being lumpy and forgettable respectively.
Other than these minor problems though, Painkillers is a condensation of everything that Fallon has done right in the past with added intimacy. The gentle burr and slide guitar of Honey Magnolia shows Fallon at his most damaged and vulnerable in one of this album’s best moments, while Smoke‘s jaunty acoustic melodies and handclap percussion sees an anthemic strength being played to in spectacular fashion. Admittedly, these aren’t the best songs in Fallon’s illustrious career, but they’re definitely strong in their own right, something that gets magnified by the weaknesses of his last release.
The main thing to note about Painkillers though, is that it shouldn’t be viewed as a Gaslight substitution, because compared to the majority of their back catalogue, it doesn’t quite match up. Rather, this is an album that reaffirms its creator’s status as one of the finest songwriters going – more of a precursor for The Gaslight Anthem’s definite return. And when viewed in that respect, Painkillers is pretty much as good as you could ask for.
For fans of: Chuck Ragan, Rocky Votolato, Tim Barry
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Painkillers’ by Brian Fallon is out now on Island Records.