Sleepwalkers

Brian Fallon

Island Records, 2017

http://www.facebook.com/pg/thebrianfallon

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/03/2018

Brian Fallon made his name as frontman for The Gaslight Anthem, aficionados of urgent Springsteenesque anthems, oversized and cinematic, yet down-to-earth and gritty. The Boss himself was sufficiently impressed to give the band a spotlight at his 2010 Hyde Park shows, and Fallon radiates the same sort of earnestness and reverence for roots-rock that has always animated Springsteen’s work, not to mention the rasp and urgency of his vocals.

On Sleepwalkers, his second solo album since putting The Gaslight Anthem on hiatus, Fallon goes all in on the retro sound, spending much of the album under the spell of Motown, adding punchy Hammond organ accents and occasional horns and turning down the guitars. It works well much of the time—Fallon knows his stuff and presents these songs with energy and conviction, adding authentic touches like the hint of gospel in the chorus of kickoff cut “If Your Prayers Don’t Get to Heaven,” plus handclaps.

Fallon’s affectionate craftsmanship is apparent again as “Forget Me Not” harnesses British Invasion call-and-answer power pop, while “Come Wander With Me” offers an airy 80s rock sound, with something approaching a reggae backbeat on the verses. Then track four goes full Springsteen with a sky-scraping widescreen ballad, a nostalgic homage to early R&B singer Etta James fueled by lines like “And all we wanted was absolutely everything / Like foolish hungry young lions.” It’s all very urgent, but never out of control, with crisp production putting a shine on every precisely placed note.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

So how does Fallon’s solo work vary from the Gaslight Anthem template? For one, the focus is entirely on his voice at all times, with the big guitars typically deployed by TGA rarely in evidence. That said, once you get past those first four tracks—and even within them, to some extent—a certain sameyness creeps in. The cadence and meter of Fallon’s lines hardly varies, the song structures are reliably conventional, and his melodies rarely range from a safe middle ground that quickly grows familiar to the ear. 

Fallon’s lyrics suffer from a similar issue; earnest and passionate as they are, in most cases they feel like rewrites of the same tune over and over: first-person narrator urgently tries to get his point across to the girl he’s trying to comfort, rescue, land, or hang onto. The final verse of “Little Nightmares” offers a prime example of the sense of déjà vu that pervades the second half of this album: “Wild horses couldn’t drag me away” isn’t just a cliché—it’s a cliché whose status as such was cemented by its use in one of the most well-known rock songs of the 20th century.

Moments that stand out after those first four strong tunes are somewhat rare; the horn section on the opening to the title track; the big fuzzy elastic T. Rex guitar that opens “My Name Is The Night (Color Me Black)” before dropping back until the chorus; and the closing acoustic ballad “See You On The Other Side,” a heartfelt number where Fallon finally breaks free of his own formula a bit.

Sleepwalkers is an album that opens up with abundant appeal but ultimately feels like less than the sum of its parts. The sound Fallon locks himself into here is engaging and is presented with sincerity and executed well, but it’s like a major league baseball pitcher who only has two pitches to throw. He might be fine once or even twice through the opposing lineup. But by the third time the hitter knows what’s coming before he even begins his windup—and the results are, in a word, predictable.

Rating: B-

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