Saturday, March 26, 2016
The Gaslight Anthem - Get Hurt
That’s the description that Brian Fallon, frontman for New Jersey rock band The Gaslight Anthem, gave to Rolling Stone in regards to Get Hurt, the band’s fifth full-length studio album. In fact, in the lead up to this record, Fallon made numerous statements just like that, talking about how he and his band spent the writing and recording sessions for album number five listening to famous records where bands had changed course and gotten “weird.” For some, hearing Fallon reference U2’s Achtung Baby and how it took that band’s sound in a completely new direction, was reason to become uneasy. After all, The Gaslight Anthem is a band that has made a career out of following small progressions from album to album, changing up the themes, lyrics, and song structures, but always maintaining the same core Jersey rock and roll sound. The prospect of a “weird” Gaslight Anthem album was nerve-wracking because, for many, imagining what that album could even possibly sound like was borderline impossible.
For others though, the idea of Fallon and co. going in a completely new direction was an appealing one. 2012’s Handwritten, the band’s last record, doubled down on riffs, hooks, and shiny production, but for many, it lost the street-rat charm that made both The 59 Sound and American Slang welcoming and relatable. Those fans will be pleasantly surprised by the first moments of Get Hurt, where a sludgy wall of guitars breaks through the speakers with fuzz and fury. The opener, the booming and bustling “Stay Vicious,” is the grittiest this band has sounded in years, replacing the last record’s Oasis-sized arena rock with something more akin to the dirty nineties grunge of Pearl Jam and Nirvana—both bands that The Gaslight Anthem covered on their last tour.
For an intro and a verse, “Stay Vicious” is a welcoming entry point for fans who still hold Gaslight’s debut record, the loud and unpolished Sink or Swim, as the band’s gold standard. (The fact that the song is laced with Fallon’s grimmest lyricism in half a decade, with winning lines like “I have pills for this, tabs for that/And something that used to resemble a soul,” only furthers its “return-to-form” MO.) But then “Stay Vicious” breaks into its chorus, and everything changes. Rather than the roaring, vocal-cord-shredding hook that one might have expected from a Gaslight Anthem opener built in the vein of a straight-ahead Pearl Jam rocker, “Stay Vicious” opts instead to subvert expectations, dropping into a slow-burn, eye-of-the-storm refrain that has more in common with The National than it does with Nirvana. It’s a beautiful, rain-drenched moment, and it adds an intriguing dichotomy to a song that could have easily been a loud, generic throwaway. It also forces you to start paying attention: maybe this is what Fallon was talking about in all of those pre-release interviews.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on what kind of fan you are), “Stay Vicious” is the exception rather than the rule. While there are songs on Get Hurt that take The Gaslight Anthem’s sound in new directions, it turns out that Fallon didn’t go quite far enough in trying to write a career shift into his band’s narrative. In other words, after all of Fallon’s hype, Get Hurt feels strangely safe, even if it is a good deal more exploratory than Handwritten ever was. Even the songs that do different things, like the gorgeously melancholy title track, the Tom Waits-esque “Underneath the Ground,” or the shapeshifting “Selected Poems,” don’t feel shocking, since they are hitting many of the same sonic pressure points that Fallon built his Horrible Crowes project on three years ago.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t fantastic songs, though. On the contrary, the sweeping “Get Hurt” is one of the best things Fallon has ever written, with a heartwrenching bridge (“Maybe you needed a change, and maybe I was in the way,” he bellows in the final moments of the song, a simplistic line that hits like a wrecking ball thanks to the booming nature of the arrangement and to Fallon’s better-than-ever vocal delivery) and crystal clear studio work from producer Mike Crossey (Arctic Monkeys, The 1975) that make it the clear lynchpin of the record. “Selected Poems” is more traditional Gaslight fare, but don’t be surprised if the song’s intro, ripped straight from the middle of Elsie, lulls you into a false sense of security. Even if it’s safer than I would like it to be, Get Hurt still has a few surprises up its sleeve, and the swan dive into the main body of “Selected Poems” is the best one. “I was fortunately desperate and turbulently innocent,” Fallon shouts as the song kicks into high gear, moments before launching into the record’s most incendiary chorus: “And all I seem to find is that everything has chains/And all this life just feels like a series of dreams,” Fallon rages on the hook, referencing Pearl Jam’s “Corduroy” in the same way he used to reference Springsteen.
And that’s arguably the biggest departure evident on Get Hurt: for the first time, Fallon is cribbing almost no moves from the Boss. The 59 Sound was a veritable scavenger hunt for Springsteen references, and American Slang based many of its themes of fading youth on Born to Run. Even Handwritten, which started Fallon’s move away from loving homage, had its Bruce parallels, from the Spectorian “wall of sound” evident on “Here Comes My Man” to the crashed American Dream of “National Anthem.” Here, Fallon seems to be writing songs that make a purposeful effort to get away from the Springsteen comparisons. It’s not hard to see why he’s doing it—a few years ago, he wrote a disgruntled open letter about concertgoers who would request Bruce songs at Gaslight shows instead of his songs—but considering the many great places the Springsteen influence has taken Fallon over the years, it’s a shame that the frontman has evidently decided to retire it.
Replacing Springsteen here are Fallon’s other heroes: Vedder, Cobain, and Petty, chief among them. The latter crops up on the album’s most patent Gaslight tunes, like “1,000 Years,” a kicking heartland rock track that would have been right at home on American Slang. A definite album highlight, “1,000 Years” has one of the most instantly memorable chorus melodies Fallon has ever written. It’s a hook worthy of “summer jam” distinction, and it should have been the lead-off single. The other Petty number is “Break Your Heart,” which fills this album’s “acoustic ballad” slot. It’s a familiar and predictable track, a pleasant piece of dusky folk-pop that feels like a natural-born penultimate number.
Unfortunately, in context of the raucous and scatterbrained Get Hurt, “Break Your Heart” feels almost jarring, like an attempt to replicate the introspective conclusion to Handwritten, only without the same level of cohesion. It’s not the fault of Fallon’s songwriting that “Break Your Heart” fails, though some will undoubtedly accuse it of being too maudlin. Instead, the problem is the overall sequencing of the record. After the first three tracks, Get Hurt fires off a number of songs that feel more like one-off diversions than parts of an album experience. The eerie “Stray Paper,” with its female back-up vocals and a histrionic delivery from Fallon (not unlike “Too Much Blood,” the last album’s overwrought centerpiece) is particularly guilty of this offense, as is the torrid, lyrically clumsy “Helter Skeleton.” Neither track is bad, but both feel a bit misplaced coming after the infectious “1,000 Years” and the grandiose title track. Similarly, lead single “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” is a killer throwback to the band’s early days that just doesn’t fit here, while “Red Violins” is this album’s “Desire,” an enjoyable piece of filler that will undoubtedly be singled out as a representation of everything this album is lacking.
Reorganized into a different order (or even altered a bit to include one or two of the bonus tracks), Get Hurt might have felt like a more connected and well-paced project. As is, it’s a bizarre jumble of ideas from a band that has at very least always done a great job at following a complete arc through their albums. The last few songs make a valiant attempt to restore the mood set by record’s opening, with “Selected Poems” and “Ain’t That a Shame” returning to the same dark and confused vein of the first three songs. Album finale “Dark Places,” meanwhile, goes back to the well that provided “The Backseat”—the epic closer from The 59 Sound, and still the band’s best song—for a fitting send-off. Everything about the song, from the almost imperceptible vinyl scratch of the opening notes, to the defining line of the chorus (“How many nights did I crash against the waves without going under?”), recalls the youthful beachside atmosphere of The 59 Sound. In other words, it’s a thrilling time capsule number for early fans of the band, filled with crashing drums, throwback guitar tones, and a swelling atmosphere that legitimately feels like the salt of sea spray on a hot August night. Whether or not it makes sense as the closer for this particular album will be debated, but for a set of songs that goes all over the place while revisiting virtually every stage of Fallon’s career, tying everything neatly together was never going to be a viable option.
Ultimately, Get Hurt isn’t The Gaslight Anthem’s best album, nor is it the one that people are going to remember years for now for taking their career in a new direction. Instead, it’s almost like a “greatest hits, new songs” kind of deal, a record that will appease and frustrate fans in equal measure, depending on which era of the band’s history they appreciate the most. Sure, it’s disheartening that the album isn’t the game-changing record Fallon promised, and it’s too bad that it doesn’t have the thesis-statement cohesion of albums like The 59 Sound and American Slang. But the songs are still great, the production is still excellent, and the performances of the band members have rarely been in finer form. Here’s hoping that, since Get Hurt essentially sums up the first chapter of The Gaslight Anthem, album number six will be able to start the second chapter in uncharted territory.