Since the band’s inception, and particularly since the release of The ‘59 Sound, The Gaslight Anthem has drowned in comparisons and accusations of sounding too much like Bruce Springsteen and writing too many songs about classic cars, and women named Maria. This is in spite of the fact they have been working on slowly building their own sound and haven’t written a song mentioning Cadillacs or Marias since 2008. The band, and more specifically front-man Brian Fallon, has expressed frustration with the comparisons in the past, and stated several times while promoting the band’s fifth studio album, Get Hurt, to expect to hear some “new things”. While 2012’s Handwritten had a song or two that was a bit of a musical departure for the quartet, Get Hurt, for better and for worse, goes all out in its expansion.
With a variety of sounds, Get Hurt is one big love letter to the huge rock anthems of the decades past. Even the album cover, in all of its big, dumb glory, recalls the minimalist cover art of rock bands from the 70’s and 80’s. The Gaslight Anthem has never really been shy about being influenced by a range of acts, but this is really the first time that some of those influences are expressed in a way that isn’t just a cover song. From trying their hand at the loud/soft dynamics of grunge (“Stay Vicious”, “Ain’t That a Shame”), and atmospheric, moody ballads (“Underneath the Ground”, the Tom Petty-esque ballad “Break Your Heart”) to venturing into twangy territory (deluxe tracks “Sweet Morphine” and “Mama’s Boys”) and going all out rock (“Helter Skeleton”, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”), the band covers more ground than they’ve ever done before. It doesn’t always work: there are clashing tempos and some weird shifts from track-to-track but at the very least it’s a change of pace from what’s normally expected from The Gaslight Anthem. They do, however, close out the album proper on a pretty familiar note, not so coincidentally making it the best closer to one of their albums in six years.
The sonic exploration isn’t the only new direction that the band takes here. Lyrically, Get Hurt shows Fallon at the most personal he’s ever been on record. There are less characters in his tales here, having been replaced by “I” statements and some dark places: “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and “Stay Vicious” both reference several types of pills and other drugs, there are plenty of straight up breakup songs, and the final track is even just called “Dark Places”. Whether this is an intentional move on Fallon’s part to distance the album from older material, or if the new songwriting style is the natural response to major events going on in his life is kind of cloudy, but regardless of the reason for the lyrical shift, it’s easily the strongest aspect of Get Hurt. Fallon still borrows from other artists (Pearl Jam gets referenced to in “Selected Poems”), but the best lines are the originals that cut deep and to the point: “I came here to get hurt / might as well do your worst to me” (from “Get Hurt”); “I want to thank you all for your courtesy / I want to thank you all for watching us bleed.” (from “Underneath the Ground”).
As far as breaking out of the mold goes, Get Hurt is pretty successful. Rather than play it safe, the band takes some risks this time around resulting in an album that doesn’t just come off as an extension of previous work. Unfortunately in the process of climbing out of the niche that the band has carved for themselves, the final product is a little uneven. The sequencing is partially to blame, as the energy abruptly shifts a few too many times during the album’s middle, but even in another order there just might be too many ideas crammed into these twelve songs (sixteen, if you include the deluxe and iTunes bonus tracks) to give it a perfect flow. It’s a contrived complaint, sure, but the differences in tempos and styles almost feel like the songs came from various recording sessions over a period of years, almost like a b-sides compilation instead of a studio album.
Minor complaints aside, Get Hurt is not a bad album. It trips and stumbles around, the hooks aren’t always as immediate, and the lyrical shift might take some time to sink in for some (it will be interesting to hear how some of these songs work their way into live shows). All-in-all, however, it’s a stepping stone for The Gaslight Anthem into the next phase of their career, and it will be exciting to see where they go from here.
3.5 / 5 Stars
RIYL: Chuck Ragan, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Pearl Jam