Adopting the old trick of making the mundane feel magic and turning the drag of everyday ordinariness into epic drama, The Gaslight Anthem appeared like a band curiously out of step when the world finally sat up and took notice of them in 2008.
But swiftly following the runaway success of their second album The ’59 Sound, the Brunswick, New Jersey quartet – frontman Brian Fallon, guitarist Alex Rosamilia, bassist Alex Levine, drummer Benny Horowitz – seemed blinded by the lights.
Their meteoric rise saw them leap from the independent punk rock world and surviving on pennies to suddenly being thrust onto the covers of music magazines, sharing stages with fellow Garden State hero Bruce Springsteen, signing to a major label and enjoying chart success as the venues and audiences grew in tandem with expectations. Then came the inevitable identity crisis and a crash back down to earth, resulting in the announcement of an extended hiatus in 2015, broken only by coffer-topping anniversary performances.
Last Spring, however, apparently renewed and reenergised, The Gaslight Anthem announced a return to full-time duties and promised a new record, History Books, due later this month. Ahead of its arrival, here’s your primer on what’s hot and what’s not in the band’s back catalogue, with a ranking of their full-length studio albums from worst to best.
5. Get Hurt (2014)
By the time Get Hurt came around, The Gaslight Anthem had allowed detractors to dull their sparkle. In the fallout from post-Springsteen patronage and chart-bothering success, the New Jersey quartet ever so gradually came to sound more self-conscious, second-guessing their instincts. The symbolism of an upside-down heart as the album’s artwork illustrates the inherent, almost too-simplistic problem. The production, courtesy of Mike Crossey, fresh from helping to launch The 1975 into stardom, feels overly glossy for a band whose roots were in beer’n’piss soaked dive bars. The plodding pace of opener Stay Vicious sets an unremarkable tone for what follows, with Brian Fallon sounding weary and alarmingly defeated for the first time.
On the whole, the band lack the vitality that had brought him to the party. In attempting to carve out fresh spaces to operate in, they sacrificed much of what set them apart in the first place and the results are, even by the band’s own admission, undercooked and underwhelming. By the following summer, they had unsurprisingly run out of steam entirely, announcing a much-needed hiatus.
4. Handwritten (2012)
Freshly signed to Mercury and putting their new label’s deep pockets to use by recording in Nashville with Pearl Jam/Bruce Springsteen super-producer Brendan O’Brien (not to mention enlisting the pen of celebrated novelist Nick Hornby for the accompanying liner notes), the band’s fourth album proudly swings haymakers and aims for an undisputed coronation. It does boast their most popular song in the excellent 45 and firmly established them as a serious live draw, but instead of the knockout hoped for, the result represents more of a series of body blows and the equivalent of a draw on points. The tracklisting feels top-heavy, with the second half of the record noticeably weaker than the first. There’s a sedate quality creeping into much of the material, too, with a shift in emphasis onto slow burners over the energy of exceptions such as Howl.
3. American Slang (2010)
The band’s third full-length outing, is a record that only really suffers by virtue of not being The ’59 Sound 2.0. Another 10 to 12 tracks with a similar sound and spirit would’ve been the easy way home, but Fallon and co. were wary of becoming boxed in by the success they’d inadvertently experienced. Suddenly, lots of eyes and ears were on them and expectations were unforgivingly high. Understandably, they were feeling it.
That pressure shows in subtle flashes here, resulting in a slightly more measured, restrained, reined-in approach replacing the open-throated, chest-beating bluster of before. On the bombast of Bring It On and Orphans guitars still chime, there’s a hint of reggae via The Clash on The Queen Of Lower Chelsea, and a through-line of jubilation and joy in evidence. Sure, the canvas of cars, girls and Americana might occasionally dance around the edges of cliché, but it’s all done with such charisma and authenticity that viewing any of it through a lens of cynicism feels harsh. American Slang still looks to the past for answers but welcomes in a cautious, tentative exploration of what could lie ahead.
2. Sink Or Swim (2007)
What The Gaslight Anthem’s debut record might lack in refinement, it more than makes up for with attitude. The quartet’s rawest artistic expression doesn’t possess the slick sound or cinematic scope that came later, but there’s enough here to prove that their house was built on solid foundations. Establishing themselves as nostalgia-fixated punks with a romantic bar band soul, they’re in thrall to the music, movies and heroes that made them, and it works a charm.
Largely, their everyman dramas employ escapist devices such as driving or dancing, shot through with an endearing carpe diem spirit. Most of the world shrugged upon its release, before its follow-up sparked a retrospective reappraisal. Boasting a smart collection of low-key campfire acoustics (The Navesink Banks, Red Sky Night) and blazing punk energy (Wooderson, I’da Called You Woody, Joe), Sink Or Swim thankfully ensured there was just enough fuel in the tank to keep the band on the road by the time they’d convince the folks at SideOneDummy that something bigger was brewing.
1. The ‘59 Sound (2008)
In contrast to the uncertainty that came later, The ’59 Sound captures The Gaslight Anthem at their most instinctive and free, playing with fire in their bellies and conviction in their hearts. That passion is in full flow at every turn, with reference points playfully weaved into the material in celebration of the past masters the band evidently bow down to. Tributes are paid to Springsteen, Tom Petty, old Hollywood and Motown via punk rock righteousness, making for a glorious concoction that 15 years on still fizzles from the first notes of the needle drop on Great Expectations right through to the pounding crescendo of closer The Backseat.
Fallon’s lived-in vocals bring a wizened quality beyond his years, transporting listeners to a simpler time set to an infectious soundtrack fuelled by the belief that music can save even the most damned of souls. It all works in concert with the rich lyrical imagery, a suitably reverb-heavy production job courtesy of Ted Hutt, and song after song telling stories that stir and soothe. It’s easy to lose sight of in the mess of the complexities that came after, but for a moment in time, The Gaslight Anthem were untouchable and The ’59 Sound is a modern classic.