Perhaps without even realizing it, Brian Fallon buries an interpretive key to his songs in the lyrics on his new solo album. “We sold our souls on the fantasies we found in records and black-and-white movies,” Fallon sings on “Etta James,” and it’s all right there: peak Springsteen and early Brando, absorbed through late nights and too many cigarettes.
The combination has served Fallon well on five albums by the Gaslight Anthem, as well as a previous solo LP, Painkillers, in 2016. He doesn’t tinker much with the formula on Sleepwalkers, but why would he? Fallon has proven himself to be an effective poet for a certain kind of nostalgia, on songs that fall into one of several categories: I’m getting out of here, but not without you (“If Your Prayers Don’t Get to Heaven”); life is hard but finding a kindred spirit makes things a little easier (“Come Wander With Me”) and hold on tight to memories of good times (“Forget Me Not,” “Proof of Life,” “Neptune,” etc.). Even “Etta James,” about finding solace in the music of a bygone era, echoes themes on earlier Fallon songs like “Miles Davis & the Cool,” from the Gaslight Anthem’s 2008 album The ’59 Sound.
Fallon has a knack for crafting sturdy tunes that border on anthemic, and every chorus has fist-pumping potential. He has a full-throated approach to vocals, singing nearly every song, even the slow jams, in a raw, aching voice that conveys a sense of urgency. Though he sounds a little corny when he barks out the name “Stacy!” at the start of “Forget Me Not,” he redeems himself with the wistful melody, jangling guitar lick and chugging chords. On the title track, he explores an infatuation from afar: “And I saw her last night with a handsome young man/ She was perfect to me, is she perfect to him?” he sings, his voice itchy, restless and at odds with the slinky, low-key feel of moaning saxophone intertwining with trumpet. Fallon finds the beauty in melancholy on “Watson,” a four-note guitar part chiming along behind him as he imagines himself as a lonely old man, while the acoustic album closer, “See You on the Other Side,” dares to envision a lasting, death-defying love.
If that sounds melodramatic, it’s surely the point. Whatever else rock ’n’ roll represents, it has always been a refuge for dreamers, a safe space to indulge in overwrought idealism and earnest flights of fancy about love, or living a life that’s kinder or braver or more adventurous than the real one. Fallon is nothing if not a dreamer, his music fueled by a head full of visions that are in some way sustaining. Or, as he puts it on “Neptune,” “Maybe we believed in very, very foolish things/ Maybe these songs kept us breathing another tomorrow.”