REVIEW: Brian Fallon – ‘Painkillers’

brian fallon painkillers

Artist: Brian Fallon
Album: Painkillers
Label: Island
Genre: Folky, Americana-tinged rock

Let’s start with a bold claim, just so we all know where we stand: The Gaslight Anthem’s broken-hearted 2014 LP, Get Hurt, is their best record.

For some reason, a lot of critics disagree with that; Get Hurt is not exactly a popular choice amongst certain groups of the band’s fans (despite its leaps and bounds in songwriting diversity, killer production work courtesy of Mike Crossey, and a decidedly mature, cohesive lyrical thesis that takes an introspective look on divorce and the range of emotions that surround it—not to mention two of the band’s best B-sides in “Have Mercy” and “Halloween”—but I digress). The record received mixed critical reception from popular outlets, which dampened the band’s spirits and partially led to their decision to take some time off. “For the first time there was some things I definitely got skewered on,” Brian Fallon told Noisey back in January. “I didn’t feel like Get Hurt freed me to do anything. Matter of fact, I felt like Get Hurt bound me a little bit. I almost felt like I got smacked for doing it.”

Born out of the ashes of The Gaslight Anthem is Painkillers, Fallon’s first solo outing. Despite Fallon’s claims that Get Hurt restrained his creative process, bits and pieces of that record’s brilliance can be found on Painkillers, showing Fallon’s continued growth as a songwriter more than capable of breaking out of the New Brunswick basement scene that birthed his main project. Painkillers features nine brand new, poppy folk-rock songs, as well as three re-recorded songs from Fallon’s low-key 2014 side project, Molly & The Zombies, all done up nicely with production work from Butch Walker. It’s a fantastic record that expands on some of the best lyrical themes of Get Hurt, while diving deeper than ever into the nostalgic Americana sound that Gaslight are perhaps best known for.

But to clear the air—Painkillers is not a Gaslight Anthem record. In fact, with the possible exception of the more rock-flavored songs in “A Wonderful Life” and “Rosemary,” it’s very far from it. Gone are any punk rock stylings, distorted guitars, and Bruce Springteen-meets-Bouncing Souls aesthetics. Fallon’s signature songwriting style remains intact, hence the comparison, but this is clearly a solo venture, featuring songs that wouldn’t necessarily serve their purpose with the rest of the band. Frankly, it’s better for it. The campfire acoustic vibe of “Smoke” certainly wouldn’t work as a two-and-a-half minute punk song, nor would the shamelessly country “Long Drives” work near as well in a rock-and-roll setting. The baggage of The Gaslight Anthem’s punk cred is entirely out of the question here, and in allowing the songs to breathe without the necessity of Stone Pony-ready, live intensity is a wise choice.

Butch Walker’s flawless production work is a perfect match for Fallon, and it’s hard to believe that it took this long to get the two in the studio together—they’re a match made in heaven. At times reminiscent of his work on Frank Turner’s Positive Songs For Negative People, Walker manages to utilize a myriad of interesting sounds like pedal steel guitars and some of the best sounding drums I’ve heard on a singer-songwriter record, all while maintaining Brian’s core songs as the center of attention. The full band elements and production choices are never distracting, and only serve to make the writing at each song’s core sound better—a perfect production thesis. Acoustic guitars sound great as they jangle wildly above handclaps and Fallon’s characteristic rasp in “Smoke,” making the new version wildly improved over the years-old Molly & The Zombies demo that’s been floating around the web. Slick pop mastering works wonders for the catchy title track and Tom Petty-inspired “Nobody Wins,” while saloon-inspired keys bounce around on “Mojo Hand,” the record’s pompy, experimental jaunt that’s sure to polarize fans—depending on the day, “Mojo Hand” is either my favorite track on the album or skippable fodder that’s only separating me from fantastic closer, “Open All Night.”

The record surely stands on its own in the Brian Fallon canon musically, but Painkillers is very much a follow-up to Get Hurt from a lyrical standpoint. In tracks like “Nobody Wins,” Fallon shows that he’s slowly but surely moving on from the love-life woes that define Get Hurt’s lyrical content; “Hey, little tommy-gun, I guess we’re never gonna end up the lucky ones. Oh, if I never see you again, have a round on me, love. Hallelujah, nobody wins.” Elsewhere, on “Open All Night,” Fallon reflects on the passage of time and the pursuit of happiness after divorce: “I will never know the town where you finally settled down, with the top back on the Cadillac and your sunglasses on. And you can’t make me whole, I have to find that on my own.” It’s a far cry from returning to the wide-eyed optimism of tracks like “Blue Jeans & White T-Shirts” or “The Backseats,” while simultaneously showing that Fallon hasn’t completely forgotten the lessons learned from Gaslight’s often-divisive final LP. The lyrics are certainly accessible as Fallon’s most radio-friendly release to date, but longtime fans will find rewarding lines that continue Fallon’s career-wide narrative in a meaningful way.

I’m sure many will see Painkillers as a return to form of sorts for Fallon—despite my unabashed love for Get Hurt, I’m aware that many fans would have much preferred a Springsteen-esque rock record, full of references and nostalgia and American imagery for windows-down, carefree listening. In that regard, Painkillers is sure to please. But for those of us who have stuck with Fallon throughout his various projects and don’t care much for the gimmicks, Painkillers shows us that Fallon still isn’t afraid to experiment, creating one of his best collections of music in the process.

SCORE: 9/10

John Bazley
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One Response to “REVIEW: Brian Fallon – ‘Painkillers’”

  1. CanadaTed says:

    Really nice review, John. While I can’t agree on Get Hurt being the best Gaslight album I am certainly more positive about it than most. Having heard a majority of the songs on Painkillers I can say that your score is totally justified. This is going to be a record I play over and over again for a long time to come. Can’t wait to finally get my hands on it tomorrow.