Sound — 7
I've reviewed every Gaslight Anthem album since 2008 for this site, and this is certainly the one I've been most surprised by. The New Jersey boys could have been forgiven for simply repeating Handwritten, the album that's brought them as close to a mainstream following as they've ever been. But that's wouldn't be the Gaslight way. Credit to them, they have taken their sound in a completely different direction. The rock n' roll bombast is not totally absent, but it's certainly not centre stag for this record; this is a record of subdued choruses, textural guitars and keys - yes, keys.
I know this album will be very upsetting for many long-time Gaslight fans, as the punk element of their earlier work is all-but disappeared. Equally, this will be the first Gaslight record where people can't possibly draw comparisons to a certain other New Jersey legend.
With "Stay Vicious," a heavy, slow, brooding riff ushers the album in, before switching to a light, mid-tempo chorus. This juxtaposition makes for a difficult listen the first few times, and is typical of the experimental nature of the album. Things are somewhat brought back to normality straight away by "1,000 Years," the only song here that vaguely resembles their biggest hit to date, "45." A cool riff, bouncy verse (led by a superb bassline) and a catchy, anthemic chorus make this an immediate standout track.
The mood switches again with the low-key, pain-infused title track, and the unusual, chorus-less "Stray Paper." "Helter Skeleton" is not dissimilar to the album's opener in structure, but is far more up-tempo and closer to the classic Gaslight sound, making for another highlight. "Underneath the Ground," however, is a standout track for quite different reasons. With a sound that will inevitably draw comparisons to Brian Fallon's side project, The Horrible Crowes, this intricately layered, subdued effort allows Fallon to bare his soul, in a way that is difficult to listen to, but all the more beautiful for it. "Rollin and Tumblin'" has to be the easiest listen here, though - a pretty straightforward Gaslight number and a pleasant break from the darker mood of the album.
The following tracks, "Red Violins" and "Selected Poems," bring that mood back with a vengeance, though. Their driven, pounding choruses bring to mind the angrier tracks from "American Slang." By the time we reach "Ain't That a Shame," one can't help but wonder how many ways there are to recycle 4 chords; it is only the lyrics that prevent this one from becoming dull. This could certainly not be said of "Break Your Heart," which may well be the best song here. It's quiet, haunting, beautiful and soul-baring; even the most hardened listener will feel shivers down their spine.
"Dark Places" is then the perfect end to the album; it comes across as a more mature version of the fan favourite "The Backseat," delightfully affirming that despite all their development, the same Gaslight Anthem are still there.
As for the bonus tracks, the airy "Sweet Morphine" and singalong "Mama's Boys" both have a country feel to them, whilst "Halloween," a song that's been knocking around for a while, has a distinct "Senor & the Queen" vibe to it. The final bonus track is "Have Mercy," which like some of the album's best moments, is beautiful in its low-key simplicity.
Yet whilst this album is frequently beautiful and undeniably brave, I'd be lying if I said I embrace the sound as much as I have on previous albums; I'm used to loving a Gaslight record after 2 listens, rather than 5. Perhaps with time, I will grow to accept it even more.
Lyrics — 10
The lyrics, however, are as strong as any other Gaslight album, without doubt. This is despite a massive departure for Brian Fallon in terms of his lexis - not once does he mention radios, cars or tattoos. In all seriousness, these lyrics and their delivery do make for a heartbreaking listen; take the chorus of "Break Your Heart," for example:
"Oh my my, it would break your heart, if you knew how I loved you, if I showed you my scars. If I played you my favourite song, lying here in the dark, oh my my, it would break your heart."
You don't need to read any interviews to understand the pain Fallon has clearly been going through. Anger, despair and desperation are all present here, and delivered perfectly by the enigmatic frontman.
In moving away from his traditional lexis, Fallon has also stumbled upon some more interesting lyrical concepts; "Red Violins," "Selected Poems" and the bonus track, "Halloween" are all superbly original approaches to these core sentiments, whilst the title track has me shuddering as I hear Fallon resign himself to the pain love will bring. "Stray Paper" seems to show Fallon giving up on love; "We're much too old for this... All my love becomes blood on stray paper," and "Dark Places" is brilliant in documenting how his words "just got in the way" of the obvious fact that his relationship was falling apart; "we were living proof, one by one we drifted away."
Lyrically and vocally, this album is flawless, which is really what fans have come to expect of The Gaslight Anthem.
Overall Impression — 8
If I had to compare this to another Gaslight album, it would have to be "American Slang." Just as "Slang" (perhaps their most uncertain album) represented a necessary bridge between the more accomplished "'59 Sound" and "Handwritten," "Get Hurt" feels like a stepping stone between Handwritten and whatever is coming next. This is not necessarily to take away from the album itself, which at times is genuinely brilliant, but it doesn't yet have that classic feel; I can imagine few of these tracks being played at Gaslight shows in 5 years' time.
But still, Gaslight offer a more earnest, absorbing experience than almost any other band out there at the moment, which means loyal fans such as myself are always willing to forgive any trespasses and patiently wait for another classic, safe in the knowledge that there will be one.