As Brian Fallon approached his 40th birthday last January, he was thinking long and hard about what type of music was going to define the second half of his artistic life. “Hitting 40, you take stock: ‘How much time do I got left?'” he says, calling from his home in New Jersey, where he’s been holed up in quarantine with his wife and kids.
Two years earlier, Fallon had reunited his Jersey-rock band Gaslight Anthem for a successful string of shows celebrating the 10th anniversary of their breakout album The ’59 Sound and released the soul-rock solo LP Sleepwalkers. Both projects scratched any lingering rock & roll itch the tattooed singer-songwriter might have had, so when it came time to write and record his new album Local Honey — released last week — he found himself drawn to introspective, folky songwriters who did some of their best work in their forties.
“Any artist that reached a turning point in their career,” is how Fallon describes them, citing Bob Dylan in the Eighties (he counts 1983’s Infidels among Dylan’s Top 10), Emmylou Harris, and Lucinda Williams. “This album took me a solid year and a half of writing, and I’ve never taken that long. It was a lot of being like, ‘I want to do this thing, but I’m not giving myself permission. I’m scared.’ Because doing this record opens up the rest of my career — that’s what I’m going to be chasing for a long time now.”
Local Honey, however, doesn’t sound as if Fallon is chasing anything. Instead, it’s a snapshot — compact, concise, and satisfying at only 32 minutes — of an artist at peace with both settling into middle age and making a new beginning. At times spare and haunting, the LP is more often grand and cinematic, the result of Fallon and his producer Peter Katis studying the dynamic production technique of Daniel Lanois. “I was listening to Wrecking Ball from Emmylou Harris and watching the U2 documentary about when they wrote Achtung Baby,” Fallon says. “There’s a difference between being rock-loud, like the Who, and this U2 thing, or I’d call it the Daniel Lanois thing, because it’s on a lot of other records he’s worked on. You can even find it in Time Out of Mind by Dylan.”
Fallon also drew inspiration from an artist who is nowhere near middle age: the 28-year-old Kentucky country singer Tyler Childers. Concerned that Local Honey was too brief at only eight tracks, he had an epiphany while listening to Childers’ equally lean latest album Country Squire. “I was going to play a benefit show that Tyler Childers was playing, and I saw that his record was nine songs. I thought, ‘Well, if Tyler can do it, why not?’ I felt comfortable. Because [Local Honey] is not a feel-good record. It’s sort of heavy, and I don’t think you can stay in that place too long.”
That’s not to say that Local Honey is a downer. Rather, it’s messy and real, a collection of songs about lives troubled, loves lost, and habits broken. Fallon revels in the minutiae. “21 Days” is about quitting smoking, “Horses” is about perseverance in a relationship, and “When You’re Ready” is a bit of personal advice to his daughter.
“In my previous work, I’d take these broad strokes about the past or the future,” he says. Gaslight Anthem songs were frequently about old busted dreams or great escapes never to come. “I didn’t want to do that here. The day-to-day is where your living is getting done, so let’s focus on that.”
The sepia-toned murder ballad “Vincent” is the closest that Fallon, who’s earned comparisons to Bruce Springsteen, comes to any “Jungleland” story-song. It has Bruce-like images of carnivals and the tilt-a-whirl, along with complex characters like “Jolene,” who hates the Dolly Parton song that inspired her name, and the doomed “Vincent,” a serial abuser. Tellingly, the song is set in South Texas, not South Jersey, a result of Fallon’s friendship with the Texas songwriter Ryan Bingham.
“I was watching that show Yellowstone that he was on, and I was thinking, ‘Well, this is probably where this girl is growing up,'” he says. “Yeah, she could come from South Jersey, but that connotation has another vibe. That’s not the vibe this person was giving me.”
Fallon was supposed to be well into a tour in support of Local Honey by now, but the coronavirus pandemic halted the run after he and his band played a single show. The dates have been rescheduled for July, and in the meantime, he’s figuring out how to promote an album without a live audience before him.
“I can’t change anything. I’m not Lady Gaga; I don’t have the power to shift all the release dates. But I don’t mind. I’ll just get through it,” he says. “If I learned anything in my 40 years, it’s what a friend of mine once said, ‘Sometimes you have to let the wave hit you.'”