Brian Fallon’s ‘Sleepwalkers’: a dormant classic

Laurie Wilcockson 12 June 2021
Image credit: Creative Commons

Brian Fallon is a musician’s musician. Never quite entering the mainstream, he has instead spent his career floating from band to band, always meeting critical acclaim, but never becoming well-known. As well as leading the Gaslight Anthem, a Springsteen-inspired heartland rock band from New Jersey, he was the front-man of both the Horrible Crowes and Molly and the Zombies. However, throughout his seventeen-year long career, nothing stands out like his 2018 solo album, Sleepwalkers.

Sleepwalkers was not Fallon’s first solo album, but it does stick out as his most ‘him’ one. It embraces the Gaslight Anthem’s heavier, classic rock sounds, with layered, multi-instrumental pieces led largely by angry, gain-heavy guitar riffs, providing his own voice as backing vocals. The album can only be pondered as an album, with each song feeding so satisfyingly into the next, and piecing together like a larger whole rather than as a compilation. Perhaps because of this, it’s also difficult to single out any stand-out tracks that are exceptionally good – it’s a simple fact that all are good enough to merit individual attention.

One thing that can be said, however, is that the title song, Sleepwalkers, is by no means worthy of being the title track. If I had to pick my least favourite song from the album, it’s one of only two I’d even consider. It’s not that it’s bad, by any means – in a worse album it would be a good song, but in an otherwise great album, it’s shown up by songs that are similar in tone, but both more memorable and exciting. The other contender for worst song would be the slow See You on the Other Side. While Sleepwalkers is notable for its forgettability, See You on the Side is recognisable as an attempt by Fallon to create a slower, more acoustic song. Sometimes, that’s fine, and again it isn’t a bad song, but it also isn’t necessarily needed in an album so recognisable by its strong instrumental licks and layers.

While it is impossible to single out the best track, it is perfectly possible to sort the better ones from the more forgettable ones. For me, the better tracks would be If Your Prayers Don’t Get to Heaven, Forget Me Not, Come Wander with Me, Little Nightmares, My Name is the Night (Colour Me Black), Neptune, and Watson. These are all fast-paced, busy anthems; love songs, although never necessarily directed at any particular lover. Sometimes, as with Neptune, the song is directed at love itself: “maybe we believed in very, very foolish things. Maybe these songs kept us breathing another tomorrow.”

A lot of this can perhaps be attributed to poetic, but arid lyricism, with lines that don’t necessarily make sense, but sound good anyway. Another line from Neptune, and the reason for its name, goes:

“She said, ‘tonight, my love, I declare this war, for your falling from grace with me.’ While Neptune rolled out a carpet made of gold, for the mermaids he drowned in the sea.”

This may sound great, but it doesn’t make any sort of sense, unless there is some clever meaning behind it I’m just not quite aware enough about to comprehend. However, for me that doesn’t really matter. His words are an instrument in themselves, almost. He uses words to create sounds to create emotions, which I’d suggest is a fairly common attitude amongst popular musicians.

Some songs, like Little Nightmares, do this better than others. Another ode to love, it’s a monologue about Fallon feeling lonely without an unnamed woman, and how he never realised he could love until she came along and softened his rough exterior. Once again, the words rarely have any proper meaning behind them, but altogether they create a strong enough image that the listener leaves feeling as though they’ve been told a meaningful story. As such, I suppose its greatest strength is that the listener can apply their own meaning to the lyrics, but in the same vein, one can just as easily criticise how blatantly void the lyrics are of anything comprehensible enough to build a narrative from.

Another great song in the album is Watson. Once again, as a typical rock ballad, it’s a song to a lost love, and a woman he once loved. Invoking the metaphor of Sherlock Holmes, it explores the theme of trying to uncover himself again and rediscover the happiness he had with her. It’s a perfectly simple song, but in the best kind of way. Anthemic, moving, and indisputably well-written, it wouldn’t be out of place on a Springsteen album. The last track I want to highlight is Forget Me Not. The first single released from Sleepwalkers, it has a slightly different feel to the rest of the album, but it would take a better musician than me to spot why that is. It could just be that it’s the one I’ve listened to on repeat so much I’ve stopped associating it with the rest. The themes are identical to Watson, and Fallon once again utilises his great skill at writing ‘lost love songs’ to create another fairly simplistic song, but one that nonetheless succeeds in enthusing the listener, with poetic (and, for once, fairly narrative-focused) lyricism. Fast paced and optimistic, it’s a different take on the typical morose, soulful ballad.

Overall, Fallon’s Sleepwalkers is without a doubt a great album. NME only rated it three stars, and I can see why a rigorous critic might find fault. The songs aren’t particularly exploratory: they’re using the same formulas as every other heartland rock song, just put through the agent of Fallon’s iconic poeticism and raspy voice, put to a crossover of clean and gained-up guitars. However, as a listener, it’s difficult to complain. Not a single song is bad by any means, even if some are less exciting and well-executed than others. All make great listening; reconcile everyone’s love for classic rock with some contemporary, modern flair; and adds a bit of cathartic excitement to any playlist.