The Gaslight Anthem: History Books (Thirty Tigers) - review | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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The Gaslight Anthem

History Books

Thirty Tigers

Oct 27, 2023 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Fifteen years ago, New Jersey-founded punk rock outfit The Gaslight Anthem released its sophomore effort and ultimate masterwork The ‘59 Sound: an intensely intimate homage to vintage Americana and desperate youth on the run that remains one of its era’s key—albeit underrated—rock releases. The group’s penchant for Old Hollywood aesthetics paired well with its scrappy synthesis of classic Jersey Shore punk and cinematic Heartland rock, with frontman Brian Fallon shouting and growling his aching proclamations of love and loss with the earnest, heart-on-sleeve determination of his musical idol and fellow Garden State native Bruce Springsteen.

At 43, however, Fallon’s throaty growl has largely eroded to a gravelly rasp—sounding distinguished and befitting of a veteran punk rocker now gazing back into history from the precipice of achievement—and on History Books, The Gaslight Anthem’s first studio release in nearly a decade, occasionally bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the Boss himself. Here, Fallon’s vocals, which ring of hard scrabble wisdom and bruised heartache, serve the album well and complement the band’s time-tested musicianship, rocking harder than ever while leaving plenty of room for moments of poignant introspection. History Books introduces the listener to a more experienced, though far wearier band, as Fallon grapples with the existential concerns of age, memory, and mortality for all to hear—all too relatable in the current era of dread and death. Impeccably timed, History Books marks the triumphant return of a great band and listeners are bound to be pleased with the impressive effort it has made.

Longtime fans may be tempted to associate the sounds of History Books with those of previous Gaslight Anthem releases (as well as Fallon’s solo output and side-project The Horrible Crowes), and these comparisons are perhaps warranted, as the album is, in a sense, a sweeping survey of the various styles and influences explored by the band over the course of its 17-year run. In this sense, History Books feels simultaneously like a celebration of The Gaslight Anthem’s impressive catalog, an attempt to author a new chapter in the group’s career, and a pledge to continue aging gracefully, while avoiding the risk of rock and roll cliché. This soon becomes evident on apocalyptic opening alt-rocker “Spider Bites,” as Fallon contemplates with unease the nature of love in a crumbling world, its bitter face cast in the shadow of inevitable death. “And maybe you’re a goner/Oh and maybe I survived,” he speculates in a frenzied stream of consciousness, reminiscent of the disconcerting thoughts by which one is haunted late at night, “But I don’t really believe it’ll end like that/I’m sure I’ll be the first to die.” This sense of existential dread permeates History Books, though each track possesses its own distinct outlook. The album’s title track, on which the group —joined at long last by the Boss—makes a phenomenal return to its ‘59 Sound era roots, explores Fallon’s realization that he has failed to outrun his past, which remains ever-present in the faces of old acquaintances. “When I think of it now,” confesses Fallon, “it just brings me down.” This guitar-heavy ode to glum nostalgia and middle-aged reflection finds The Gaslight Anthem at the top of its game, conjuring the melancholy magic of the group’s classic output, specifically 2008’s “The Patient Ferris Wheel.” Springsteen’s verse, delivered with a hushed somberness befitting of the track’s atmosphere, is triumphant in its subtlety, marking the group’s first studio collaboration with the iconic rocker. At the track’s conclusion, Fallon poignantly reminisces of the “nights of smoke and dirty jokes/Darkened rooms and lonely ghosts,” before accepting that “they were beautiful some time ago/But time keeps rolling us on.” Its title track is certainly History Books’ conceptual and musical centerpiece, successfully demonstrating that The Gaslight Anthem is well-prepared to thrive in a new era.

The golden, Tom Petty-inflected “Autumn” distinguishes itself as one of History Books’ key cuts, as well as one of the most unique tracks recorded by The Gaslight Anthem. Here, Fallon exercises his lyrical abilities, expanding upon the previous tracks’ concerns in a plain-spoken poetic proclamation: “I hate the way that time goes/Crashing over like a steamroller/I wish that I could do my life over/I’d be young better now.” This line, perhaps above all others, is the most likely to resonate with disaffected millennials, once in their teens and 20s during The Gaslight Anthem’s heyday, as they drift toward the great “halfway” mark. Not unexpectedly, the group injects the track with its signature cinematic aesthetic, with Fallon delivering such picture-perfect descriptions as, “So can I hold you underneath October?/Black jeans in autumn/Leaves falling down.” Elsewhere, the bombastic hard-rock anthem “Positive Charge” finds the group firing on all cylinders, with lead guitarist Alex Rosamilia, bassist Alex Levine, and drummer Benny Horowitz joining to produce a furious rumble of rock and roll thunder as Fallon calls out for salvation, attempting to extract a sliver of gracious optimism from an otherwise bleak scene. “I wanna live/I wanna love you a little longer,” he insists, “I was invincible many years ago when I was so much stronger.” In recalling the lively intensity of 2010’s American Slang, the group is able to reconcile the youthful bluster of its earlier output with a more refined, even stoic acceptance of maturity, with Fallon ultimately concluding: “It’s good to be alive.”

The haunting “Michigan, 1975” finds Fallon revisiting his work with his soul and folk-inspired side-project The Horrible Crowes, namely 2011’s “Black Betty & the Moon.” The track, a devastating character sketch whose spare melody calls to mind a ghostly Midwestern winter evening, once again exemplifies the group’s creative ambition beyond the confines of punk rock, recalling the bleakest cuts from Springsteen’s Nebraska. “Michigan, 1975” marks History Books’ shift to a more eclectic direction, with many subsequent tracks, such as the Tom Waits-esque “The Weatherman” and grim slow-burner “Empires,” taking sonically experimental measures in exploring the traumatized psyches of alienated outsiders as they navigate the halls of guilt, shame, longing, and desperation. Fallon’s honest empathy for his characters is apparent, especially on the latter track, serving as another artistic trait he shares with the likes of Springsteen and Waits. Like those revered and masterful antecedents, he allows his outcasts and underdogs free rein to speak as intriguing, yet flawed human beings, each narrative convincing in its emotional rawness and devoid of pretension.

Elsewhere, anthemic Southern rocker “I Live in the Room Above Her” boasts a sludgy stomp and infectious shout-along chorus, indicating that The Gaslight Anthem still retains plenty of the ferocious “young punk” energy it produced in abundance back in the 2000s. The album’s closing track, aptly titled “A Lifetime of Preludes,” finds Fallon both nostalgic (“I remember holding hands on the bank of the reservoir”) and well aware of the impossibility of return (“It saddens me to see how far that is from where we are”). Much like “Michigan, 1975,” the track finds the group revisiting the folky singer/songwriter influences explored by Fallon with The Horrible Crowes, though “Preludes” is far lighter, replacing “Michigan, 1975’s” chill with a more serene sense of wistful sorrow, with Fallon concluding, “I just miss the way I see you when I sleep.” The track closes History Books on a bittersweet note, its lyrics ultimately devoid of the “positive charge” sought previously by the group, though its enchanting shuffle leaves the listener with a peculiar tinge of hope that we may all eventually learn to cope with the inevitable.

Nearly a decade following the release of Get Hurt, The Gaslight Anthem’s final album prior to its 2015 split, Brian Fallon and company have delivered their much-anticipated follow-up and it is everything that fans could have hoped for. If not for the middling “Little Fires,” which is by no means a bad track but fails to match the rest of the album’s consistency, then History Books might be deemed a solid release, and is certainly the group’s most passionate and diverse effort since American Slang. The album’s lyrical content, often eloquent, feels heartbreaking and timely, while the top-notch collective musicianship of Rosamilia, Levine, and Horowitz brings Fallon’s words to life. Interestingly, The Gaslight Anthem has managed to branch out and experiment as a band over the years, but rarely strays from its roots. The smokey, leather-jacketed, all-nite-diner-smoking-section aesthetic and unabashed punk rock sentimentality of 2007’s Sink or Swim and The ‘59 Sound remain apparent on History Books, but without rendering the album a novelty release or tired rehashing of the “old stuff.”

For nearly 20 years, The Gaslight Anthem has remained true to its vision, maintaining creative autonomy despite critical efforts to pigeonhole the group as mere Springsteen lackeys. With its propensity for big, loud arena-ready guitar rock and cinematic Americana fixations, History Books is likely to gain its share of skeptics—as has every Gaslight release—but fans of the band, as well as plenty of casual listeners, are sure to be satisfied by the stirringly evocative musical experience. The Gaslight Anthem’s new album is a tremendous success, its clever, tenderly relatable explorations of life and death especially relevant to the current moment. (www.thegaslightanthem.com)

Author rating: 8/10

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Average reader rating: 8/10



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