Review Summary: "All in all, I find that nothing stays the same."
Armed with a new label and some new influences, New Jersey's The Gaslight Anthem have crafted a remarkably puzzling record with Get Hurt
, the band's fifth full-length offering. Part of the curiosity stems from the pre-release interviews Brian Fallon and company have provided; in particular, Fallon's presser with Rolling Stone
raised some initial eyebrows. While promoting the titular track, Fallon disclosed, "[W]e wanted to see where else we could go with the band. We thought it was time to change things up a bit." He later revealed that he studied bands that changed their sound and evolved over the years, citing U2, Pink Floyd, and Frank Zappa, among others. To assist the band in this venture, The Gaslight Anthem called upon British producer Mike Crossey, who has previously worked with The 1975, Foals, Keane, and the Arctic Monkeys, and his fingerprints are evident throughout the record.
My first reaction to all this is... why? Or, more specifically, what's the motivation for feeling the need to "change things up" and make it such a perpetual theme in the build-up to Get Hurt
's release? Bands altering or adapting their sound seems like such an organic development (in fairness, it might border on catastrophe for a band if there were no evolution in sound across four albums), and I'd be keen on learning why it was a conscious decision to research other established bands' trajectories in how they changed their sound (and why this was such a prominent discussion point in the pre-release interviews). To clarify, this was just my initial reaction, and it's not necessarily a criticism; however, as soulful and groovy as it can be at times, the record is certainly not without its faults. Get Hurt
is composed of several solid individual songs, but the record also lacks a cohesive quality that listeners have come to appreciate.
Opener "Stay Vicious" roars from the get-go with gritty, sludgy guitars akin to '90s Pearl Jam complemented by bombastic drumming, later metamorphosing into something that's more The National or The Killers than grimy Screaming Trees or tempestuous Nirvana. The inflection in Fallon's voice on "Stay Vicious" combines a Kurt Cobain snarl with the earnest delivery of a Tom Petty, which is an intriguing flourish. For example, the chorus' soothing "la la la"s juxtaposed with his sardonic line of possessing "something that used to resemble a soul" illustrates how far removed the squalid sounds of Get Hurt
are from the sparkling and polished Handwritten
to unmistakable effect.
Fallon has always been a masterful storyteller without resorting to too many clichés in his lyricism, and the album's first four songs, despite their diverse range of tempo and tone, are Get Hurt
's first brilliant run. "1,000 Years" is an obvious highlight that will undoubtedly sound radiant live, sporting the album's strongest chorus with its "'Ay-yay-yay, it's alright', she says / 'Once upon a time, I lived the perfect life' / ... 'in a dream of mine from a thousand years ago'" emphatically delivered. The summery "1,000 Years"' guitars are equally radiant: Alex Rosamilia's leads weave in-and-out in the song's final chorus and outro, accentuating a sense of familiarity that in which we are accustomed from The Gaslight Anthem. Most of Get Hurt
's mid-to-fast-paced numbers ("1,000 Years", "Stray Papers", "Rollin' and Tumblin'", "Dark Places") are the album's premier cuts, although tempo doesn't always equate to catchiness or accessibility. For instance, "Ain't That a Shame" is a tried-and-true, blues-tinged rocker, but lacks enough hooks and charm to sustain interest. "Shame"'s demeanor is similar to "Selected Poems", which is buoyed by its assertive chorus and confident latter verses after a drab opening stanza. In contrast, "Break Your Heart" can be equated to The '59 Sound
's "Here's Looking at You, Kid": a slower, somber number that serves as the album's marvelous penultimate track. "Break Your Heart" immediately brings to mind a stripped-down "I Won't Back Down" by Tom Petty. The anguish and heartbreak are instantly identifiable: "You can lean on me until your heart don't beat," croons Fallon, before continuing later, "If you knew how I loved you if I showed you my scars / ... Oh, my, my, it would break your heart". In parallel, "Dark Places" gives "The Backseat" a damn close run for its money for best Gaslight album finale: I can envision it ending the band's main set at future concerts, with their encore capped off by "The Backseat".
As aforementioned, Get Hurt
's sequencing of songs is troublesome. The opening four tracks and final 1-2 punch of the melancholic "Break Your Heart" and magnificent "Dark Places" are incredible, but the album's middle section alternates from sterling to grisly. "Helter Skeleton"'s vigor moves like a sine curve, with the lulls having longer wave lengths than the sections sporting more gusto, and "Underneath the Ground" is a woefully meandering number that might have some appeal if it were a B-side. Truth be told, "Ground" could better fit alongside with bonus tracks "Sweet Morphine", the sauntering, harmonica-featuring "Mama's Boys", and the slow-burning "Have Mercy" with its accompanying female vocal. That leaves "Halloween" as the remaining bonus track that could be swapped with "Underneath the Ground" on the album. It's an excellent song - "Halloween"'s motif and the crescendoing shouts of "Who're you supposed to be? You look just like my love" are truly memorable, as is the clever "Me, I'm a tomb, a corpse in a suit, trying to look a little alive" line - but it would have more power if it were slightly later on the album, such as somewhere during the "Red Violins"-"Selected Poems"-"Ain't That a Shame" run. Also, Fallon does revert to some similar themes on Get Hurt
. Just like "the radio" was a lyrical ally on Handwritten
(and other records, sure), this record has an appreciable number of allusions to drugs and other vices ("Helter Skeleton"'s "Since you only get high on the weekends, why don't you feed on me tonight?"; "Stay Vicious"' "I have pills for this, tabs for that"; "Rollin and Tumblin'"'s "Should I take everything, all the temporary medicine? / Should I take your reds, your blues, and your cocaine? / Should I take something to try on the weekend?" are examples), and once again, blood is a major theme in Fallon's writing.
may go down as The Gaslight Anthem's worst album to date, but that's not much of an assessment: a difficult Gaslight record is still a really good album, and it's commendable to experiment, evolve, or otherwise try something new. Some of their undertaking works wonderfully, even if it means sacrificing crashing cymbals, a raucous rhythm section, and boisterous guitars in a handful songs, because the emphasis on keys and alternate strings and percussion gives the album a new, refreshing palette of sounds. There's also plenty to like if you are keen on Sink or Swim
("Rollin' and Tumblin'", "Helter Skeleton", "Stay Vicious") or Fallon's and Ian Perkins' The Horrible Crowes side project ("Get Hurt" reminds me of Elsie
's "Ladykiller", and the harrowing line of "Maybe you needed a change, and maybe I was in the way" in the song's chilling outro is intimately familiar; also, "Ain't That a Shame" and its "ooh"s brings to mind album highlight "Go Tell Everybody") and every record in between. Perhaps Fallon's divorce from his wife got infused into some of the record's darker imagery, which was his cathartic way of dealing with that sense of loss. I wouldn't call Get Hurt
a divorce album, but an album Fallon needed to write to alleviate his heartache and begin to heal by sharing it with listeners. As adroit as Fallon is as a lyricist, though, the vocals and instrumentation do suffer, especially in the album's patchwork middle section. There, Get Hurt
's oscillating sounds distract from the bookend songs' cohesive flair. For some, the adjustment to Get Hurt
will take a while - do give it time - but it may become their most divisive album in their discography, even years down the line. The production is stellar, the Eddie Vedder/Tom Petty/Kurt Cobain intimations are palpable and welcome (it makes sense that the band have covered these artists' songs in previous tours), and some individual songs ("Dark Places", "Break Your Heart", "Get Hurt") are superb. Here, the band prove that they can write more than just loud, rambunctious rock-and-roll, with winks of an eye towards their influences, for entire albums. Unfortunately, the less charismatic songs weigh just as heavily as the album's most captivating tracks, and Get Hurt
is Janus-faced as a result.
As a whole, Get Hurt
will be a memorable record, but why
it'll be remembered depends on one's relationship with the rest of The Gaslight Anthem's discography thus far.