15 in ’59

The Gaslight Anthem and the Eternal Object of Nostalgia


in Ideas • Illustrated by Esther Lee


“I still love Tom Petty songs/and driving old men crazy”

“Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” 

Nostalgia, as many of us undoubtedly learned from this classic Mad Men scene, literally means, “pain from an old wound,” which raises the question of why we seek to relive and revive that pain. For about as long as people have experienced that peculiar feeling of longing for the past, there has been an impulse to debunk it. That the “good old days” were not usually as good as we remember them is a well-worn fact at this point, such that any invocation of the charms of an earlier era now tends to come with its own disclaimers that this was only true some of the time, for some of the people involved. Still, a brief glance at social media memes extolling the virtues of being a “true ’90s kid” or TV advertisements for various brands that play on the longing for simpler times will reveal that, if nothing else, nostalgia is big business. Even things that seemed like soul-draining slogs in the moment (bored, aimless hours in suburban basements, dealing with leaky pipes and sagging floors in a student apartment) can take on a retrospect halo from the perch of adulthood’s responsibilities. 

What happens, though, when the pull of nostalgia comes prematurely? In the longing for a place an illusory touching of the past’s void, what if we conjure the belief that somewhere, some time was a place where everything was enchanted and lit with a warm glow, beyond our own years?  Sometimes, in searching for the source of our old pain, we find that the wound was not our own, but rather transferred, as if somehow psychically, through the mists of words and time. This sort of second-hand nostalgia is an odd thing, not often as readily described as the genuine article, but it can make art no less powerful than one’s own memories, in the proper hands. 

Music can be an ideal transmission vessel for this form of shopworn looking back, as a medium that both prizes the expression of individual experience and builds upon past works and influences. The periodic “revival” movements of various types within the musical landscape prize a kind of return to an earlier era as a radical act of authenticity, even as they draw from eras that musicians working today may only know transmitted through their own old records. If too forced, these acts of tribute can feel like mere dress-up affectations, a pantomime of past glories, but there are those acts that manage to make reverence for the past a true part of their identity. Many have cited the studied, literate Americana acts of the 1990s such as Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams for their unique ability to interpret older musical traditions in a way that makes them vital and alive in the current moment. For myself, though, New Jersey’s The Gaslight Anthem stands out as the master of the particular skill of making the past live again. 

The Anemoia of Loss 

The Gaslight Anthem is a band from New Brunswick, New Jersey, an area of the United States that originated the eponymous “Jersey Shore sound,” a unique style of rock music that combines elements from doo-wop, soul and R&B, including pronounced use of horn sections, to create a sound as danceable as it is muscular, and as soulful as it is rhythmic. Though Bruce Springsteen is usually seen as the key exemplar of “the Sound,” the coinage actually predates him and, indeed, his origins as a musician are in grinding out seaside bar gigs in the tough, grimy scene of the late 1960s where it gestated. The exact relationship between the Sound and The Gaslight Anthem is a matter of dispute, with some claiming the label is misapplied and simply a matter of geographic coincidence and lazy genre tagging. Indeed, the band does not indulge in obvious signifiers such as saxophones and it has little to do with The Drifters or The Four Seasons in terms of their approach. At the same time, there is a looseness to the band’s tempos and an attention to locked-in grooves that make them far more danceable and less threatening than many of the others they have a surface-level resemblance to.  

In some sense, the Gaslight Anthem is a punk rock band, or at least it has its origins as such and draws from a scene of New Jersey punk bands going back to The Misfits and, a band that more closely resembles Gaslight’s approach, The Bouncing Souls. The garage-mechanic-by-way-of-greaser aesthetic that the band operates in, along with the galloping rhythms and at-times frenetic two-guitar attack that defines its early sound, certainly put it in good company with bands like Against Me, whom Gaslight once toured with. Even the literary, often twinkly-eyed poetics of lead singer Brian Fallon find an echo in the working-class storytelling of some of The Clash’s best moments, or Social Distortion’s classic “Story of My Life.” The band debuted in 2007 with Sink or Swim, a rough-around-the-edges debut that nonetheless made an impression on a 15-year-old version of me with its sharp, brawny sound and unabashed, heart-on-sleeve romanticism. It’s the type of record made for teenage punks who are too cool to outwardly like the music they grew up listening to on their dad’s car radio, but secretly love all the AM heartland classics. But, in 2008, the band would earn a place amongst the pantheon of modern classics in my, and many others’ judgment, with their sophomore album, The ’59 Sound, a true masterpiece of carefully crafted takes on the glories of getting caught up in the past. 

Consider a lyric from the bridge of the album opener “Great Expectations”: “Funny how the night moves/humming a song from 1962”. This is a take on a line from Bob Seger’s immortal pean to teenage lust, “Night Moves,” where waking up to a sound of thunder and thinking back on the past inspires the narrator to conjure a song from his youth in the middle of a lonely night. The interesting thing is that “Night Moves” itself was released in 1976 and longs for an earlier era in Seger’s own life, with its imagery of drive-ins packed with post-war gas guzzlers and carefree summer nights of the pre-Vietnam 1960s. By contrast, “Great Expectations” and The ’59 Sound more broadly find their lyrical inspiration in eras and moments that precede the band’s own experience. All the Gaslight Anthem’s members were born in the 1980s, in New Jersey, and clearly have a bone-deep knowledge and reverence for heartland rock artists, most obviously Springsteen but also Seger and Tom Petty, among others who they throw direct lyrical and musical nods to throughout the record. The general sonic texture of the record is nominally punk rock in that it is simple, using stripped-back instrumentation beyond a few notable flourishes (“Film Noir” adds night club atmosphere through the use of a standup bass and jazz chords), but it doesn’t scan that way. There’s no anger here, more regret, somber reflection and happiness that times past were shared, despite the sometimes-heavy subject matter (“High Lonesome” seems to reference a friend’s battles with cocaine addiction, the title track is about too-young death in a car accident). Brian Fallon’s lead vocals have an occasional hint of militant bark but are mostly muscular and smooth in the style of ’50s/’60s soul or, probably more directly, Springsteen. In fact, Fallon himself stated that his approach to the title track and the album as a whole was inspired by the classic Memphis soul records of the 1950s (stating that it had a “genuine feeling of excitement going on that I don’t think is necessarily happening right now”). The album’s title invokes an image of the cusp of the clean-cut 1950s transitioning into the wild ’60s, the moment when rock-and-roll evolves beyond Elvis and gets less managed and more untamed. Beyond this, the album packs in reference points as varied as old-school jazz (“Miles Davis and the Cool”), Casablanca (“Here’s Looking at You, Kid”) and 1970s drifter literature (“Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”), completing the package of influences both musical and aesthetic that point to a youth spent truly absorbing the reference points of the past, maybe in the backseats of the same cars they (and Seger) so often sing about. 

Another key line from “Great Expectations”: “We were always waiting for something to happen”; an indication that the lives of the members and listeners in this new generation never quite lived up to the world that their rock ‘n’ roll idols promised them. Perhaps, then, the proper term for the feeling that The ‘59 Sound most invokes is not nostalgia but the more obscure “anemoia,” a neologism that refers to a feeling of nostalgia for something one did not actually experience. Perhaps, if human beings have thought in terms of eras, there have been those who feel displaced in time, that their lives would be better if only they had been born at a different point, or in some other place. Clearly, The Gaslight Anthem struck a particular nerve of this feeling with their unique combination of influences and approaches; the album is near-universally considered their career high-point by fans, and it is the only album in their catalog to receive the full back-to-front treatment at concerts celebrating its anniversary. In many ways, this is peculiar for a band working in a musical form that, at its beginning as notionally about tearing down the past and making something wholly new. Though another three records, on varying degrees of quality and acclaim, would follow before the band decided to take an indefinite break, they seemed to recognize the unique power that The ’59 Sound held in their discography almost as soon as it came out. 

Come Around/Full Circle/Be New Here Again 

Late last year, the Gaslight Anthem released its first album following a nearly decade-long hiatus that saw the band members move into various solo and side projects, and just over 15 years after the release of The ’59 Sound, embarking on a supporting tour that is ongoing into 2024. There is no small irony for a group that has mined the past for reverence as much as it has that this album is called History Books. Is the band claiming its own place among the heroes it has previously paid reverence to? Is it a cheeky acknowledgment of both the band members’ own now-relatively advanced ages (Fallon and Co are now older than Seger was when he released “Night Moves” and, indeed, the age Springsteen was when his classic albums were released) and the high expectations of their fans? In some ways, the record leans into these readings, with a higher ratio of reflective cuts, such as the country-tinged ramble of “Autumn,” to the outright rockers, and a more radio-friendly sound that cuts off some of the harder edges that the band’s earlier records retained. The record also features a long-awaited collaboration with Springsteen himself on the title track, though it is less of a bound-for-glory anthem that one might expect from the team-up and more of a tense, double-sided look at how past lives can hold one down in the present. For a band that spent so much time in its youth looking back to an earlier era, the journey to middle age has been a bumpy one, that had to overcome growing pains and some lackluster albums (2014’s Get Hurt was particularly beset by stiff production and ill-fitting songwriting choices, despite a handful of respectable tracks). It remains to be seen whether History Books represents the beginning of a new (pardon the pun) chapter for the band or an endpoint, but to these ears, it is the band’s best work since the 2008 classic, with enough grit to balance out the occasional oversweetness of the production and the best, most specific set of lyrics that Fallon has penned since. Its perspective is also appropriately wizened, hardened but not bitter, and having more of a wistful smirk on the past than the intense longing found on The ’59 Sound. In all, it is a wise set of choices from a band that easily has rested on its laurels and turned out a front-to-back copy of what came before. 

Alongside the new album, the band also released an EP entitled Short Stories, which contains a re-recording of the song “Blue Jeans and White T-Shirts,” which originally appeared on the EP The Senor and the Queen, released a few months before The ’59 Sound (and featuring a lovingly-reproduced picture of Fallon’s parents in their younger years as the cover). This new version is, mostly, the same musically-speaking (with the exception of cleaner production and more backing vocals, courtesy of Austin musician Emily Wolfe) but contains a few interesting lyrical tweaks. In the original, the narrator promised that “Someday I’ll buy you that house on Cookman” during a payphone call preceding a resigned “I’ll sleep on the beach if I ain’t got a ride.” In the new version, this becomes “today I’ll buy you that house in Bayview”; perhaps a sign that things have moved on from the last-change-in-the-pocket days. Intriguingly, and perhaps in contradiction, the new version also ends with the line “go out to west Texas, blow up some cars,” which is not included in the original. A last goodbye to rebellious youth? A discomfort with the comfort of prosperity? It remains tantalizingly unresolved.  

If the Gaslight Anthem has come full circle, now being for many others the very same hero-poets of the six-string the band looked up to, it has done so organically, and not in a mere ouroboros of influences. The Gaslight’s future remains unwritten but, much like its invocations of hazy memories, some of the band’s own, and some conjured from long-forgotten LPs and photographs, the group has given its fans a true class in how the past can live on inside, pain and joy included. For an album that directly longs to live another life, in another age, The ’59 Sound now invokes a time in my own life that was, if not exactly simpler, at least more forward-looking, where youthful ignorance started to bleed into adult responsibility.  The cars were more ’94 Sunfires than “Old White Lincolns,” but the sentiments are much the same. In a way, this is the greatest tribute to its power: that it can conjure such disparate memories than the ones it directly references, simply through its own staying power.•


Carter Vance is a writer and poet originally from Cobourg, Ontario, Canada currently resident in Ottawa, Ontario. His work has appeared in such publications as The VehicleContemporary Verse 2, and A Midwestern Review, amongst others. He was previously a Harrison Middleton University Ideas Fellow. His latest collection of poems, Places to Be, is currently available from Moonstone Arts Press.