With any release, a band reinvents the expectations set for them. For some bands, the expectations are too heavy to bare. For others, the expectations dictate their future releases, and they become monotonous and stagnant. For a select few, the expectations are exceeded, and the band is able to thrive in a volatile, unpredictable scene. And then there are the bands who completely disregard those expectations, trust themselves, and produce material that will be remembered forever.
The Gaslight Anthem are a band whose expectations have always been a little too high for them to reach. Ever since their instant-classic The ’59 Sound, the band have been heralded as saviors of rock and roll, the next big band, Bruce Springsteen’s heir apparent to the throne of the greatest New Jersey songwriters, etc. The band backed up their breakthrough with American Slang an album that seemed to stray too far from their tried-and-true formula of punk-infused rock with it’s blues-rock hybrid sound. After that, the band made the leap to a major label for Handwritten, an album filled to the brim with arena-ready anthems, but lacking the youthful energy that many fans return to their boisterous debut Sink Or Swim. With a catalog of material that seems to have one side of fans absolutely enthralled with a certain album and the other half completely turned off by it, the question needs to be asked:
Can The Gaslight Anthem ever make everyone happy?
On Get Hurt, the band’s fifth full-length album and first on Island Records, we finally get or answer. Truth is, the band simply don’t care anymore, not about what their sound change will mean to fans, not about the constant comparisons to a who’s-who of classic rock legends, not about what their expectations are. It is because of this newfound nonchalance that the band were able to truly hunker down and focus on the task at hand, and the result is among their most inspired material.
Beginning with “Stay Vicious,” a track that could have easily been on any grunge album released in the early 1990s, Get Hurt doesn’t take long to establish the fact that this will be a different experience than what you’re used to from The Gaslight Anthem. Benny Horowitz starts off the album with a pounding drum rhythm before Alex Rosamilia lays down the heaviest riff he’s ever contributed to the band, and Brian Fallon’s vocals begin to growl over all the chaos. “Stay Vicious” becomes one of the many tracks that take the band’s formula and tweaks in enough of a way that makes them sound fresh and new. Along with the album opener, tracks like “Stray Paper,” whose lyrics seem to build to a peak at track’s end instead of being built around the chorus, and the slow-burning, keyboard-driven “Underneath the Ground”, which gives the album a feel of the beginning of a new era in the band’s songwriting process.
Musically, the band’s cohesion and ability to complement one another is a certain highlight. On tracks like “Red Violins” and the album’s title track, there isn’t one particular member to highlight for an individual performance, but rather the entire band seems to be on the same wavelength, creating a smooth listening experience. If there were any complaints to be made about Handwritten, one would be that the album relied a bit too heavily on guitar-driven tracks, but on Get Hurt, the band feel much more focused and complete.
Of course, the ultimate component that many listeners will end up judging Get Hurt on at the end of the day is Brian Fallon’s ability to craft more relatable, honest songs without becoming stale and boring. Fallon has already proven himself twice over as a gifted lyricist, so it should come as no surprise that he lives up to his reputation here. Fallon recently revealed that he was going through a divorce during the writing and recording process of this album, and that information will help to understand a great deal of the tracks, which deal with Fallon’s favorite subject: the pain of lost love. While previous albums touched on this subject often, Fallon always was able to find a deal of hope and optimism in his grief. on Get Hurt, however, there are quite a few tracks that simply broadcast his melancholy, rather than trying to find the silver lining in it, beginning with “Stay Vicious” and also pouring out of the title track, “Break Your Heart,” “Selected Poems,” and the one-two punch of tear-jerkers that close the album, “Break Your Heart” and “Dark Places”.
Fallon’s musing on the drawbacks of being onstage and writing such personal material continues, as he uses “Underneath The Ground” and “Red Violins” to remain open about his love-hate relationship with his position in rock today. This subject was the source of one of the tracks the band plays most often from Handwritten, “Too Much Blood,” and while the track shows Fallon fearing that he’s exposed too much of himself, “Underneath The Ground” finds him feeling thankful for the support, despite the fact that he may have overexposed himself. “I want to thank you all for your courtesy,” he whimpers as the track enters its outro. “I want to thank you all for watching us bleed.”
Acceptance becomes the largest theme throughout the album, as Fallon comes to terms with his fame, his lost love, and above all else, himself. It’s a powerful place to be in mentally, and is evidenced on the proclamation he makes on lead single “Rollin’ and Tumblin'”, were he sings “You say I’m hopelessly devoted to misery? Well, I don’t want to be so devoted no more.” With his divorce on his mind, Fallon seems to come to grips with the consequences of lost love, and the inevitability of pain that a person who opens themselves up to someone else will endure. With this in mind, the first line of the title track’s chorus goes from a line that insinuates this inevitability to a battle cry and an assertion of persistence. “I came to get hurt, might as well do your worst to me,” Fallon croons. And if The Gaslight Anthem’s career has proven anything, it’s that no matter what may happen to its members, no matter how many fans still yearn for them to make another album like The ’59 Sound, no matter how many people want to rehash the same tired comparisons to Bruce Springsteen, no matter what they have to endure, that’s exactly what they’ll do.
Perhaps it’s time to give up the ghost. Maybe The Gaslight Anthem will never be the massive rock act they seemed destined to be. What Get Hurt will remind people, however, is that there’s nothing wrong with that. This is a band who have already cemented their place in the history of rock music in the 21st century, and everything we get from them now is just another addition to their already impressive catalog of songs. What Get Hurt accomplishes is that it proves there is still room for The Gaslight Anthem to expand and adapt their sound, and they still have plenty of talent and inspiration to push themselves and push the limits of what’s expected of them. That’s not to say they’ve abandoned their younger selves, by the way; there are plenty of moments throughout the 12 tracks (16 if you count the 4 b-sides and rarities that grace the back end of the Deluxe Edition of the album) that will bring back fond memories of each of their previous releases. With an understanding of what they excelled with in the past and a vision that keeps them moving forward and expanding outward into the future, The Gaslight Anthem have escaped from under the weight of their exceeding expectations and established themselves as a band that will never settle under the umbrella of a certain sound for long. And that’s exactly what makes them so intriguing, so important to this generation of bands, and most importantly, it’s what makes them so damn good.