In December of 2012, hot on the heels of their successful major label debut, The Gaslight Anthem’s frontman Brian Fallon promised their next album would be “weird.” In an interview with Rolling Stone, Fallon expressed his desire to make an album like Pearl Jam’s No Code, which comes out of left field and confuses fans but is appreciated later down the road.
Get Hurt is just different enough from the rest of the band’s catalog to really stand out, but not so different that it’s going to alienate large swaths of fans. As great as their first four albums are (okay, maybe American Slang wasn’t “great,” per se) the band’s sound hasn’t mutated much since their breakout The ’59 Sound back in 2008. They’re a straightforward four-piece rock outfit with punk roots and heartland soul, equal parts Bouncing Souls and Tom Petty. Singer-songwriter Brian Fallon has branched out with excellent side-projects The Horrible Crowes and Molly and the Zombies, but Gaslight proper has been shy about experimenting. Those days appear to be over.
It isn’t that Get Hurt has a single cohesive “new sound;” it’s that the album features more variety of sound than previous Gaslight Anthem albums. Gaslight mostly runs on two speeds: fist-pumping rock anthems about adventure or loss, or quiet, meditative, singer-songwriter-style gems about adventure or loss. Get Hurt plays with more middle ground, as well as more extremes.
Lead-off track “Stay Vicious” opens heavier and grungier than anything they’ve done before and features a wilder Alex Rosamilia guitar solo than usual. The vocals on the noisy verses are a double-tracked dirge, with Fallon’s baritone cutting through the guitars like a buzzsaw. The Pearl Jam aspirations show through very clearly here; this is Fallon at his most Eddie Vedder. Still, the chorus of the song, which is quiet and pulls the guitars almost completely out of the equation, is very familiar Gaslight Anthem territory. Brian Fallon is a songwriter with a consistent cadence, and he tends to employ the same rhythms and meters to his lyrics. Compare the chorus of “Stay Vicious” to Handwritten‘s “Here Comes My Man.”
“Singing, la la la la lalalala, look at you saving my life”
“Singing oh, sha la la, oh, sha la la, listen honey, here comes my man”
It might not be apparent just from looking at them, but you can basically sing one over the other. It’s kind of off-putting, but it also makes it very clear that however different this track sounds, it’s still The Gaslight Anthem. (Admittedly, this is the still weakest opening track of any Gaslight album to date.)
A few tracks on Get Hurt have more of an ’80s rock feeling than we’ve heard from the band before. “1000 Years” and “Helter Skeleton” both feature higher, more pop radio-friendly vocals that are in stark contrast to the low growl heard on “Stay Vicious.” Fallon seems to reach higher notes more easily, so either he’s been doing some serious vocal training, or he’s employing a little bit of (forgivable) studio trickery. With “1000 Years” they’re playing at more of a Big Hard Rock Band effect than they have in the past, maybe looking to add a laser light appeal to their live show, which despite playing bigger and bigger venues, still feels like a great bar band that doesn’t know what to do with the larger space.
The album’s title track has an entirely different atmosphere, more in the vein of Fallon’s moody Horrible Crowes side-project than any previous Gaslight track. This is an echoey ballad that’s more produced than fans are accustomed to hearing from the group, and it works really well. This carries over into the more rock-oriented track “Stray Paper” and later cuts like the haunting “Underneath the Ground,” which features prominent keyboards and a lot of negative space, both new territory for the band.
For all the experimentation on the first half of Get Hurt, the songs on Side Two would more easily fit on Handwritten musically, like the opener “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” (which I’ve written about previously) or “Red Violins.” What separates these songs from that earlier album are the darker themes and heavier production. Handwritten is pretty uplifting and exciting, whereas even the more familiar-sounding tracks on Get Hurt are sort of a bummer.
That’s because Get Hurt was inspired in large part by Brian Fallon’s recent divorce from his wife of ten years. Gaslight Anthem songs have always dealt with heartbreak, but usually in the past, like in “Here’s Lookin’ at You, Kid” from The ’59 Sound, which is a letter to all of the women in his past who had their shot and blew it, because he’s married now. This wound is fresh, and it permeates the whole album.
“And how many nights did I crash against the waves with my head going under?
How many days did I spend trying to see it your way? If you try to remember,
I changed a change and kept on saying ‘one of these days something inside’s gonna break’
and we won’t get it back now, baby.”
– “Dark Places”
There are a number of references on the album to love as some sort of ailment, contagious and terminal. There’s a bitterness, a cynicism that’s sort of new to Gaslight Anthem songs, which usually reside in that gray area of working-class rock where things are rough but it’s not totally hopeless. Given the personal stuff going on in the life of the band’s principal songwriter, it’s not too hard to imagine where lines like this come from:
“I heard about a woman once, who did everything ever asked of her.
She died last night, and her last words were ‘It wasn’t worth it.'”
– “1000 Years”
The Gaslight Anthem are getting pretty tired of being compared to this particular New Jersey icon, but it’s hard not to draw comparisons to Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, an album that followed his biggest mainstream success with a very new sound that was inspired by the deterioration of his first marriage. Tunnel of Love was not a big hit upon its release, but has come to be accepted by many Bruce fans as one of his best records. No doubt Get Hurt is going receive mixed reviews. It’s probably not going to jump immediately to the top of any Gaslight fan’s list of favorites. There’s no one song on this album that’s as rousing as “The Backseats,” or as gorgeous as “Mae,” or as anthemic as “Blue Jeans and White T-Shirts.” But it is going to make you look at the band differently, and it will likely be appreciated for what it is, if not immediately.
Which was, of course, all part of the plan.
Get Hurt will be in stores and online tomorrow.