When The Gaslight Anthem chose to record their fifth album in Nashville, it made a lot of sense.
They made their name with 2008’s The ’59 Sound, an album that drew on the working class heart of influences like Bruce Springsteen and fed them through a punk rock filter. Gradually, the punk diminished and songwriting that twinkled ever more with a torch song spirit came to take precedence in third album American Slang and fourth Handwritten. Throughout, though, there was always something within The Gaslight Anthem, and particularly singer Brian Fallon, that retained a blue-collar soul, and a gritty nostalgia. Taking that to Nashville, the home of the most shamelessly romantic music in the world – country – seemed a match made in heaven. Unashamed romance and blue collar soul sounds like a match made in heaven.
Which is why the opening songs on Get Hurt are a surprise. Why much of the album is, actually. Because though the band promised that they were exploring new sounds, thinking about the likes of Bob Dylan with Fallon writing even more autobiographically than before, the opening moments of this album are not quite the new sounds that most expected. Stay Vicious begins with a brazenly bombastic riff, all balls-out rock, as Fallon drawls his vocal over the top. Later in the song, there’s a howling, screeching guitar solo that threatens to burst speakers. This isn’t what was billed.
But in between the riffs and the solo, comes a more familiar Gaslight, as Fallon – close to the microphone and wistfully earnest – sings the warm melodies that make those that cherish the band love them so. Does it work, this mix of the new and old? Not quite. Somehow, the new bombast and the old tenderness don’t quite marry.
1000 Years follows, its opening riff less obvious but equally punchy. Soon though, it features one of those Gaslight choruses – Fallon singing ‘Ay, ay, ayyyy!’ so catchily that crowds will struggle not to sing along, perhaps happy to forgive the rest of the song for being a touch staid, a little plodding. But once again, there’s that awkward marriage of new and old. Everyone is supposed to have a midlife crisis, looking for something younger and fresher when gentle maturity might be more appropriate. Perhaps this is The Gaslight Anthem’s.
Ain’t That A Shame is another that reaches too quickly for classic rock riffs. But perhaps there’s a reason, this could well be a means perhaps to shake off those Springsteen comparisons that first baffled, then pleased, and now dog the band. Rollin’ And Tumblin’ is more driving, a nod to punk past, but again it is not what might have been expected from a band keen to explore new ground in country’s heartland.
But if you listen again and again, there’s something half-hearted about the rock ‘n’ roll they toy with on Get Hurt. Stray Paper, for example, opens with swagger. Then, just as on Stay Vicious, it quickly unfolds into the heartfelt heartbreak that has so often underpinned Gaslight. It’s something they do throughout the album – go from opening punch to pensive verses. It’s as if they try the riffs on, swirl around in front of the mirror for a bit, then return to the old grey t-shirt they know fits them better.
So it is, that beneath the sparkly riffs, the old Gaslight live on. Underneath The Ground is wistful to the point of croaking its last breath. But though it lacks the spirit and joie de vivre of songs on, say The ’59 Sound, it does have that Gaslight heart that is so important to the band.
As it is, Get Hurt struggles to satisfy but can hardly be called a failure. It sounds like a band who have told themselves they need to search for something else. If you were lazy, you would call them a band in transition. But the thing is, the only people who want Gaslight to change are the band themselves. This was an itch they needed to scratch but which no-one else felt. It’s why there are times they cling to their past, something diehard fans will be able to dig for and hang onto. But the more casual might wonder why there is not so much that grabs them as instantly as in the past.