Eddie and the Cruisers is an ill-fated, 1983 movie about a New Jersey, rock’n’roll band that falls apart in the second act: inexplicably, the plot pivots from something legible to a Scooby Doo-style mystery that leads Tom Berringer on a car chase through a castle made of scrap metal in the middle of an abandoned junkyard.
After a grabby start, it’s a left turn to a terrible disappointment.
The first half of the film, however, is a joy, and features a world of saxophone solos, guys named Sal, indoor smoking, dirty, seaside bars, old convertibles, transistor radios, and coming-of-age stories, played along doo-wop keys.
And there’s this scene.
It’s a summer night in 1962, and Eddie and his band pull up to a working-class bar on the Jersey Shore. Del Shannon’s “Runaway” is playing on the radio of Eddie’s turquoise, Chevy Bel Air, and the rowdy gang of music makers sing along, as they pour over the sides of the convertible and into the now-empty bar. It’s after hours, and inside, the place is empty: stools are upturned,and the floor is being swept, but it’s obvious that this is the type of place that’s crowded and smoke-filled in July, with sun-burnt patrons that raise their arms overhead to keep from spilling beer on the walk back to their tables.
Slick-haired and leather-clad, the band sidles up to a summer employee—their future piano player, Frankie—who asks if he can help them. There’s a pause, and Eddie and Sal, the Cruisers’ bass player, look at one another with a sly, swaggering confidence too big for the room.
Eventually, the silence is broken, when Sal responds with a street-tough, Jersey accent.
“Yeah,” he says plainly. “Tell Tony, ‘Eddie and the Cruisers are here.’”
…which is what I see when I listen to Brian Fallon’s Sleepwalkers.
The second solo album from the former Gaslight Anthem frontman, Sleepwalkers takes the single-coil electricity of pre-Haight-Ashbury rock’n’roll, and puts it in the capable, tattooed hands of a modern-day greaser. With the rebellious posture inherent to early rock, Sleepwalkers takes a sonic step away from the lyric-driven folk of 2016’s Painkillers, but remains catchy in the extreme. With heavier riffs and an edge to its lyricism, Sleepwalkers displays Fallon’s ability to craft choruses that live inside of you for days at a time, something he’s done since Gaslight’s 2008 breakout, The ’59 Sound—and if not for digital music, this would be a record some listeners would burn out on turntables from overuse before they tired of it.
Sleepwalkers opens with the instantly recognizable “If Your Prayers Don’t Get to Heaven,” which is followed seamlessly by “Forget Me Not”: the record’s first two singles, “Prayers” and “Forget Me Not” not only set a stylistic course, but sound like they’d fit in the fictional-Cruisers’ set at Tony Mart’s, or with an early incarnation of the E Street Band at the Stone Pony, bringing a past-meets-present aesthetic that smashes era together in the same way Weezer did with “Buddy Holly.”
But while following a similar logic, Fallon attacks the idea entirely differently than Rivers Cuomo, playing on this record with a ferocious sincerity through Sleepwalkers, and bending obvious influences (the album has a track simply called “Etta James”) to his unique talents: the album’s titular track, for instance, opens with a wistful saxophone, and lives in the bopping hooks and four-four time of early rock’n’roll. It’s not a tribute, however. Instead, it’s an obvious vessel for Fallon’s whiskey-barrel croon, and he remains steadfast in the delivery that’s found him anywhere from a Warped Tour stage to Springsteen’s opening act. With that spirit, “Sleepwalkers” is able to pass as the soundtrack to a bygone, American summer romance, but also feels like Danny Zuko with a neck tattoo.
Lyrically, the album walks a similar line, tapping into images of vinyl, angst, fast cars, and girls named Lily, which have always been staples of American rock, as well as Fallon’s songwriting, dating back a decade. In obvious homage, he sings, “Don’t you understand I know what it’s like to be a rolling stone,” and “Wild horses couldn’t drag me away from you, baby”; likewise, he says, “there’s something pure about growing up lonesome,” and recalls “the words [he] heard spinning’ on a needle by [his] bedside.”
But while he stays true to his signature modern-nostalgia, Fallon seems more forward-facing on this record than some of his previous work, penning songs that offer a window into his new station in life: sonic-outliers relative to the rest of the album, “Proof of Life” and “My Name is the Night” carry heavier overtones of fatherhood, while “See You On the Other Side” takes inventory of existence while aging, rather than holding onto the youthful shorthand that’s proven so effective for Fallon over the years.
But perhaps more than any other track on the album, “Watson,” gives a true-to-life snapshot of Fallon as he strikes out on a new path: following a 2013 divorce to his wife of ten years, Fallon remarried and relocated to England, taking his new surroundings head on, as he cites Arthur Conan Doyle, London’s Angel Station, and the River Thames. With an open heart, he offers the portrait of a man on the night he feels he can be “made new again,” singing, “It took such a heavy light just to find you in the first place, through all that rain and remaining fog.” While it may not appear inventive relative to the rest of Sleepwalkers, “Watson” is paramount to any worthwhile collection, as it represents the public catharsis that any good songwriter chases in verse.
“Etta James,” “Nightmares,” and “Neptune” are other standout tracks, while “Come Wander With Me” is a boldly autobiographical song, offering a distinct, in-studio-taste to Sleepwalkers, which runs counter to the sound that populates the majority of the work.
But craft aside, Sleepwalkers is built on attitude—on the earnest, ephemeral spirit that made six, amplified strings a cultural rebellion in the first place—and, throughout, Fallon burns like a cigarette. Wielding electric riffs and infectious hooks, Sleepwalkers feels like what would happen if the Gaslight Anthem played American Bandstand, and proves that—though its cultural cache is fading—there’s still a necessity for rock’n’roll in today’s musical landscape.
With Fallon, the genre is in good hands: since he broke out over a decade ago, he’s seemed like an individual made more of Petty lyrics and well-worn Telecasters than skin, bone, and cells, and with this record, you can almost see him walking into a dirty, seaside and saying to the summer help, “Yeah, tell Tony, ‘Brian Fallon is here.’”