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Is it Possible to tell a Contrived Love Story in a New Way? The Gaslight Anthem Thinks So.

By Jonathan Skufca | 15/9/15 1:00pm

Courtesy of Clash Music

Welcome back to the coolest space on the internet. I’m sure you’ve all missed my presence in your lives once a week, and I hope my shift of posting day doesn’t rip a hole in your space-time continuum (If it does, I really can’t help you there. Maybe talk to the Physics department). Anyway, I’ve been brainstorming all summer and I have plenty of good content for yinz guys. So get ready—it’s gonna be a fun ride.

Ever since I was recommended to listen to them by a random stranger online, Brian Fallon and the boys in The Gaslight Anthem have been a band whose work has always piqued my interests, especially their first two albums, Sink or Swim, and The ’59 Sound. But, in between those two records, they released a lesser known EP, Señor and the Queen. That EP contains the song we’ll be looking at this week, “Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis?”

If you’re not familiar with The Gaslight Anthem, they’re often compared to Bruce Springsteen, but with a harder, punk-ier edge. Since both acts hail from the Garden State and have poetic lyrics that idealize more working-class perceptions of life and love, the comparisons are very apt. But, coming from someone who liked TGA before he decided upon liking Springsteen, there is something special about Fallon’s lyrics, and I think it’s the way he combines nostalgic imagery with vivid, realistic imagery. Take the opening verse of “Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis?”:

I cut my teeth on the stone of a teenage romance 

I was the salt of the Earth, I was hard; the last of the independents.

And the breath from my chest I was blowing kerosene 

My lips and fingertips were stone, I wore my heart on my jeans 

I sang the blues like the dogs left too long in the street 

I still sing the blues with the dogs.

And from the start, Fallon makes it clear what this song is about. It’s a story we’ve heard thousands of times and will continue to hear as long as people fall in love. It’s contrived and overblown. But why do we care when Fallon is telling it? This verse contains examples of the answer to that question. The opening four lines create a character that teenage- and twenty-something boys the world over can relate to. He wants to be his own man—someone who doesn’t “need” anyone. He’s putting on this façade as a “hard” working class man. A “ladies man” if you will—someone who flirts with lots of girls but is noncommittal to all of them. The last two lines, however, show that he’s more complex of a character than that. He is actually someone who longs for companionship and clamors for a sense of belonging. And shift from past to present tense in the last line shows that he isn’t happy he put on this façade—it’s not who he really is. He just did to fit in with what seemed to be idealized and popular at that time. The last two lines of the second verse go further and state that pretty much directly:

I never felt right, I never fit in 

Walking in my own skin

Nostalgia is a huge part of The Gaslight Anthem’s aesthetic. However, this is one of the times that they seem to criticize a part of the often-idealized past. And it’s the idea of the “ladies man” we mentioned earlier—the attractive brooding type that many a girl lusted after. But not every young man was like that. There were young men like the character in the song that took calculated steps in an attempt to appear as attractive as possible, and ended up getting burned because of it. This all becomes clear when the band rockets into the chorus—one of the band’s catchiest in my opinion:

Walking in my old man’s shoes and my scientist heart 

I got a fever and a beaker and a shot in the dark 

I need a Cadillac ride, I need a soft summer night 

Say a prayer for my soul Señorita

Is there any imagery more suggestive of a late 50’s teenage romance than a night ride to a secluded spot in a giant Cadillac? I can picture it happening in a stereotypical 50’s movie right now. But in the chorus Fallon moves beyond the nostalgia and stereotypical relatability to what made me fall in love with his work before I fell in love with Springsteen’s. Springsteen’s characters are just too idealized for me—at least that’s the sense I get when I listen to his lyrics. Fallon’s characters have more flaws that Springsteen’s. Songs like this and “Great Expectations” from The ’59 Sound contain characters that are both idealized and complex. And despite their stories being contrived, the way that Fallon both idealizes and breaks down nostalgic stereotypes is what keeps me wanting more.