DS Album Review: The Gaslight Anthem emerge from hiatus recharged on “History Books”

The Gaslight Anthem (l-r: Benny Horowitz, Alex Rosamilia, Brian Fallon, Alex Levine)
Photo cred: Casey McAllister

In the interest of full disclosure, The Gaslight Anthem has been on my short list of favorite bands for the better part of two decades. I think when I reviewed the latest Hold Steady record earlier this year, I think I mentioned how Gaslight/Brian Fallon and The Hold Steady/Craig Finn and Lucero/Ben Nichols and Dave Hause have essentially been my personal musical Mt. Rushmore for most of my adult life, particularly when viewed through the lens of bands that are in my generation. They aren’t one of the bands I grew up listening to in my parents’ house (read as: Springsteen and Seger and Mellencamp and Petty, etc) and they weren’t in that generation of bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and Bad Religion that became “my” bands as a teenager. Instead, they were bands and voices that I felt like I grew up with; we shared similar age brackets and socioeconomic brackets and so they resonated on a level that is just different and more personal than the from my more formative years. At least I think that’s what I said.

I vividly remember not only where I was (my bedroom) but what I was doing (getting ready to drop my newborn off at daycare on the way to work) when I first saw the video for “The ’59 Sound” and vividly remember that visceral feeling that “ohhh…this is really good” that came over me. I followed them every step of the way and shot them a handful of times and have lyrics tattooed on me and got super starstruck the couple times I met Brian before I first actually met Brian. Hell, I even loved Get Hurt from the very, very first listen. And so I count myself as one of those who was sad when they went on hiatus (not sad enough to drive to Bridgeport, Connecticut, for their then-last US show…but almost that sad) and, conversely, super happy when they announced that they were getting back together.

But I’ll also be the first to admit that I was a little nervous when news of their comeback album, History Books, was released. Cautiously optimistic, sure, but still nervous, because you never really know how a band is going to function both internally and externally when they get back together. There isn’t really a lot of precedent in our area of the punk rock world for bands getting back together and putting out meaningful, listenable music after a seven-year break. And they certainly can’t be expected to have the same level of proverbial piss and vinegar or youthful energy that drew so many of us toward them in the first place…although neither are those of us who are now in our mid-forties.

And so I purposely avoided all advance coverage of History Books. I ended up sort of accidentally hearing the lead single “Positive Charge” in passing at a store and I think eventually on Spotify and I warmed to it immediately and listened to it again repeatedly but that just strengthened my resolve to avoid listening to the rest of the singles before I could do my typical old man routine of listening to the whole album in order, start to finish, as the good lord intended. (Side note: on a ten-song album, four advance singles seems like a lot.) I even avoided the Springsteen single. YES, I EVEN AVOIDED THE SPRINGSTEEN SINGLE.

And so last Friday, I saved up a bunch of my pennies and drove to the local record store and picked up a copy of History Books on something called purple smoke vinyl and I opened it up and it didn’t have a download code and I don’t have a record player in my Honda Accord, so I went online and plopped down some more of my pennies and bought a digital copy of the record and then I downloaded it and then I hit play and listened to it start to finish in the car. You know…as the good lord intended. I initially had the intention of reviewing the record in real time, making notes as I listened to it and summing it up at the end without much in the way of editing but, as you’ll recall, I was driving, and I’m okay with texting and driving at the red lights, but 2500 word album reviewing is a little much to do behind the wheel. So I let it play. And play again. And play again. And now I’ve listened to it so many times in the last seven days that it’s hard to still look at it as a new record. And that’s a good sign, because it means History Books is a great fit in the collection.

The album kicks off with “Spider Bites,” which is about as quintessential a Gaslight album opener as you can get. The intro hits hard and fast, the swirling, fuzzed out guitars over big, dynamic drums setting the tone right from the opening notes that a post-hiatus Gaslight Anthem is not going to relegate themselves to crafty veteran status. No, there is plenty of giddy-up on this collective fastball. The “and so we struggle/for each other” is a collective rallying cry that not only are the band back, but that they – and we – are all in this together.

History Books” follows, and leans directly into the longstanding Springsteen comparisons by having The Boss himself take over lead vocal duties for the second verse. The subject matter is poignant coming from a Fallon who is reflecting on a lifetime of connections and acquaintances that he may want to leave in the rearview; it takes a particularly haunting tone when coming from Springsteen’s mouth, knowing how much time the latter has spent reflecting on – and grappling with – his own legacy and career in recent years. It must be a daunting task to have an icon such as Springsteen tell you to write a duet for you two to perform together, but I’d have to say Fallon nailed the tone and timbre necessary for the occasion.

Autumn,” which is clearly the most Gaslight Anthemy-titled Gaslight Anthem song in the ouevre – at least since “Halloween,” I guess” – follows up and is the first of the album’s mid-tempo tracks. It’s got a fun shuffle to it that we haven’t heard on many a Gaslight track before. I like to think that there are three main styles for a traditional Gaslight Anthem song; there are the howling songs and there are the haunting songs that make up the comparative ends of the spectrum, with the mid-tempo ones occupying that center. Lead single “Positive Charge” is the third ‘howler’ of the bunch. It was probably the appropriate choice for lead single, for both musical and lyrical reasons. It leans most into that uptempo rock thing that Gaslight has made their wheelhouse for the better part of the last couple of decades. Benny Horowitz and Alex Levine locking down the tempo allowing for Rosamilia’s guitar to soar into and out of the anthemic choruses and outro.

With a story inspired by The Virgin Suicides – a book that I guess I should finally getting around to reading given that it’s been on my bookcase for two decades – “Michigan, 1975” quickly made its way onto the short list of my favorite Gaslight songs. It’s a sonic kin to TGA’s rendition of Fake Problems’ “Songs For Teenagers” that appeared on the Jersey foursome’s 2014 The B-Sides collection. It’s a haunting song from start to finish, rife with layered meaning and imagery. The hard-charging, descending riff and singalong pre-chorus in “Little Fires” might be my favorite moments on the album and the best examples of “ooh, this sounds like Gaslight Anthem, but it also sounds like a new wrinkle.” In the end, we all burn little fires. Yet another cathartic and life-affirming singalong outro.

Oh, and “Little Fires” has also got a super cool swirling guitar solo, which means this is probably a good time to give Alex Rosamilia his flowers. It sounds like he really had fun making this record. For my money, he’s long been the band’s unsung hero; his noodling runs providing a unique texture that helped make Gaslight Gaslight. In addition to “Little Fires,” it’s super evident on “History Books” and especially the reverb-heavy solo on “I Live In The Room Above Her.” The latter is another song dominated by big chunky riffs in the intro and the choruses and it’s held down by the underrated rhythm section of Benny Horowitz and Alex Levine through the verses. It manages to check both the “haunting” and “howling” boxes, it’s tale a story of living above a woman who may or may not be a serial killer.

Slightly out of order, but “The Weatherman” is a mid-tempo song that’s got a shuffle to the rhythm in the verses that keeps it from feeling formulaic. “Empires” is an interesting song. It is firmly entrenched in the “haunter” category, and as such it might be the song that could most-easily pass as a Brian Fallon solo song (or at least as a Horrible Crowes song). On first listen, it wasn’t my favorite, and yet over the course of the last week, it’s the song whose chorus has woven its way into my brain and I find myself unconsciously humming the melody in my head on repeat. History Books comes to a close with “A Lifetime Of Preludes.” It’s another slow-burn that I thought might be my least favorite on the record, except that it’s not. It might actually lyrically be the heaviest song on the record, and it’s tale of once-requited love becomes a bit more of a stomach-punch on subsequent listens.

I think I just wish “A Lifetime Of Preludes” was longer. At 3:17, it clocks in as the shortest of the album’s ten tracks, but it’s got a lot of bright textures that I would have loved to have seen expanded and turned into a soaring, six-minute show slow closer of a song. But maybe that’s the point of a lifetime of preludes I suppose, right? Also “I just wish it was longer” is my only overarching critique of History Books. The high points of the album my not quite reach the stratospheric highs of The ’59 Sound or Get Hurt or songs like, “45,” but they’re still comparatively high and with relatively few valleys corresponding to those peaks. The band clearly shook off any of the rust that might have accumulated through a half-dozen years apart from making music together. As a songwriter, Fallon has long-since shown himself more than capable of taking the heart-on-your-sleeve vigor of his sweaty, basement punk rock years and maturing in a way that doesn’t lose his listeners. He seems happy, perhaps aided by the passing of time that’s allowed him to deal with some of the more traumatic episodes in his life. And yet that happiness allows a certain clarity that keeps his lyrics are heavy, thoughtful, riddled with metaphor and double meaning, and the expanded musical palette of Gaslight’s collective members helps paint broader and more cinematic pictures, creating relatable characters that invoke many a different place and time in the lives of those of us on the consumer end. History books are, they say, written by the victors, and while we all know that that’s a bit of a lazy argument in most cases, it’s certainly true in the literal sense here. Kudos to Brian and Benny and Alex and Alex (and Ian). How we’ve missed you, and feeling good to be alive.

On a scale of 1 to 5 pork rolls, I give History Books a solid 4.5.

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