Review Summary: How I've missed you, and feelin' good to be alive
When The Gaslight Anthem originally announced that they were disbanding nearly a decade ago, I didn’t find myself too surprised by the news, nor was I deeply disappointed. Sure, they were one of my favorite bands at the time and one of the most important groups in my musical journey that opened the door to exploring new music outside of my dad’s taste. The ‘59 Sound still holds the distinguished title of my favorite album of all-time since its release in 2008. But the writing was on the wall that they were on the downslope in terms of quality. Get Hurt, the album before their hiatus, signaled a death knell for The Gaslight Anthem as we knew them at that time. It had its moments, particularly the closer “Dark Places,” but the band opted for a change in sound that came across as anything but organic in execution and it seemed like everyone was exhausted with each other and had run out of ideas. I have to admit, I wasn’t really missing them all too much. Part of that has to do with the fact that frontman Brian Fallon never truly left the music scene, releasing several solo albums that ranged from good to great in quality. I also think Get Hurt soured me so much that I was still feeling residual effects after all this time. So when The Gaslight Anthem announced that they would be releasing their first new music in almost ten years, I wasn’t necessarily jumping for joy. I would call it a mild enthusiasm, at best.
On History Books, Brian Fallon and company have replaced their blues jeans and white t-shirts for black jeans in autumn. It’s evident right away that this is a more weathered effort. Fallon’s vocals are more worn and frayed, lacking the typical youthful gruff fans had become accustomed to during the band’s heyday. The nostalgic punk rock elements on early albums like Sink or Swim and The ‘59 Sound are replaced with a heavier reliance on slower, mid-tempo cuts. History Books sports mixed results overall, feeling more like Fallon’s solo material rather than a full-blown collective effort from The Gaslight Anthem. It’s clear that they’re knocking off some rust, but it doesn’t inspire much confidence that getting back together at this point in their respective careers was the right move. While I didn’t have the loftiest of expectations, given that they’ve been gone for ten years, I did figure they would bring a little more to the table than what we ultimately received.
You could easily point to the title track as the perfect summation of the overarching indictment against this album. The song features Bruce Springsteen himself, the band’s greatest inspiration and one of the key reasons behind getting the band back together in the first place, so you would figure that out of everything on this album, this particular song would feel monumental. There should be an overwhelming energy coursing through the track that feels like a scream from the proverbial mountaintop that “we are back!” But sadly (oddly), it falls flat, serving as the greatest disappointment on the album. It is not the worst song on the tracklist, to be clear, but it falls dramatically short of expectations. I kept waiting for the oomph moment, but it never came. Maybe it’s a matter of production choices. Maybe it’s the song structure that holds it back. Maybe the problem lies in the performances themselves. Even The Boss can’t bring enough life to this song. Other songs like “The Weatherman” and “Empires” feel like unnecessary filler, adding little, if anything, to the tracklist and could have easily been left on the cutting room floor without feeling like a major sacrifice.
Despite some key missteps, History Books does offer some highlights to return to on repeated spins. Thankfully, lead single “Positive Charge” brings the energy that the title track lacked and is the closest The Gaslight Anthem comes to sounding like their former selves. This single reads like a love-letter Fallon penned directly to the band. It comes across like he genuinely missed playing with these guys after all these years. The collective performances from the band are more engaged and airtight. “Michigan, 1975” feels like it could have slotted neatly into Fallon’s last solo record, Local Honey, with its sparser instrumentation and morose themes. “Little Fires” features a jolting opening guitar and the most enthusiastic vocals from Fallon on the entire album that recall moments from American Slang.
Closer “A Lifetime of Preludes” feels like a cut straight from Fallon’s solo catalog and features some of his most emotional story-telling and personal lyrics to date. I know that lines like “And I could feel your heartbeat mix with mine and I slept there for a lifetime,” “And I could feel your heartbeat mix with mine and I held you for dear life,” and “I just miss the way I see you when I sleep” will eventually render me to tears on the right listen. It’s lines like these that serve as a reminder as to why I always held Fallon in such high regard as a songwriter.
History Books doesn’t quite deliver on the sentiment that The Gaslight Anthem is fully back, but it does offer enough moments to hold onto for the time being. Overall, I still find myself feeling lukewarm towards the band’s return. It’s nice that they’ve decided to put out new music together, but I hope a more spirited, impassioned effort is on the horizon.