Yep, they’re back! Although it hasn’t really felt that long, has it? The Gaslight Anthem went on hiatus in 2015, and released their final album prior to that in Get Hurt a full decade ago now, but it’s not like their ripples had dissipated. Brian Fallon released four solo albums in the interim (okay, three and a Christmas album) that played in generally the same ballparks, and the waves of heartland-rock / alt-punk that The Gaslight Anthem stood as champions of have never been bigger. It’s enough to where Get Hurt, despite being a flaccid listen overall and comfortably the band’s worst album, never felt like a crushing low. At that point, The Gaslight Anthem had become bigger in spirit than just their own body of work, and the fact that’s never gone away has been phenomenally encouraging when it comes to a new album. Hell, they’ve nabbed a feature from Bruce Springsteen, the worshipped godfather of this whole movement on History Books; if that’s not a sign that their own myth-making has paid off, then what is?
As such, the soft spot applied to The Gaslight Anthem seemingly by default is quite the advantage for them to have, particularly going into a post-hiatus new album. Right now, they’re in the ideal spot to benefit from the grading curve that’s always going to shine upon them favourably. And while it’s true that there’s still a bit of a gulf between History Books and their best work, it’s hard to deny that this is a fine return to form. It’s certainly the leap back up towards normalcy needed after Get Hurt, even going so far as endeavouring to refine the mismanaged ideas from that album into something much more solid. Therefore, History Books isn’t quite the softball it could’ve well been; it’s familiar, sure, but in a climate where things can be way more competitive among The Gaslight Anthem’s ilk, asserting their own abilities is just that necessary.
That being said, it’s also not as if the teething problems in the hard rock and grunge threads from History Books’ maligned predecessor have completely subsided. It’s still a bit of a jolt to hear The Gaslight Anthem’s usual languidity and aerated bluster feel so firmly plugged up, as can be the case with the likes of Positive Charge or I Live In The Room Above. But on the whole, they’ve also settled into a pocket where, not only is the whole exercise more deft in execution, but it’s reaching a stage where large-scale integration is feeling much easier. Opener Spider Bites might initially herald some wonkiness in its barroom stride, but it soon calms into a heartland hard rock mould that’s much more even-keeled.
On the whole though, History Books is, first and foremost, the reassertion of an ever-excellent formula that The Gaslight Anthem aren’t even close to running dry. Predominantly that’s thanks to how effortlessly they get back in the saddle, where the vibe of timelessness that’s an inherent win continues to come with minimal fuss. It’s the same foundation that gave them a top-tier run of The ‘59 Sound, American Slang and Handwritten back in the day, a bit more pockmarked and creaky from lack of use, but fundamentally unchanged. Folksy, all-American vignettes come scrapbooked and emboldened by their sepia-toned warmth, and narrated by Brian Fallon’s burr that now balances out an exterior that’s grown slightly harder with the swirls of romance and empathy within. Particularly when the Americana aspect is given full control on stripped-back cuts like Michigan, 1975 and The Weatherman, it alone is enough to set off the floods of memories and stories that probably never even happened, but feel infallibly lived-in regardless.
The secret weapon of this kind of rock always has been and always will be its populism in humanity, and even at their lowest ebbs, The Gaslight Anthem has no qualms with putting that on the highest pedestal imaginable. It’s why their broad, blustery fairytales of an idyllic, classic America continue to connect even today, when they’re so willing to cast out yonder with incredible gumption. Of course having Bruce Springsteen on the title track is a milestone get for this band specifically (he’s basically just there for mild vocal support, but the principle of it all means that hardly even matters), as well as a validation from America’s own working-class hero that The Gaslight Anthem are indeed the right ones to pick up the torch. Rarely was that even in doubt, but History Books carves its decree in stone, to where the hardscrabble alt-punk of Little Fires or the dreamy folk-rock and alt-country of Empires and A Lifetime Of Previews embody the purpose of this revival. This isn’t a nostalgia lap or a cash-grab bankrupt of new ideas; that was never The Gaslight Anthem’s style to begin with. No, they’re well aware they have more to offer, and History Books stands proud as that new opening chapter.
Above all though, it’s just wonderful to have The Gaslight Anthem back. Their absence mightn’t have felt quite as sore as some others, but new material just reinforces tenfold how much of an asset to any contemporary scenes that they are. That’s true even when they’re not at their apex, as History Books isn’t. There’s a hint of roughness that’s not among the reliable features in this band’s wheelhouse, but they march through into something mighty anyway, because that’s the kind of band that The Gaslight Anthem are. A return like this signposts the path back to their wizened, burnished best, and that’s far too tantalising to pass up on.
For fans of: Bruce Springsteen, Against Me!, The Menzingers
‘History Books’ by The Gaslight Anthem is released on 27th October on Rich Mahogany Recordings / Thirty Tigers Records.
Words by Luke Nuttall