Get Hurt feels like it was doomed from the start. Not only did The Gaslight Anthem find a much wider audience since their 2012 album, Handwritten, but they went so far as to openly discuss the sonic transition that they aimed for on Get Hurt. By soliciting the fact that they saw this as a transitional album, the band assigned themselves a near impossible task: to capture extensive progress while still satisfying fans and critics alike.
Oddly enough, Get Hurt’s successes are in not in light of this task, but despite it. The best tracks on the album are the ones where the band can’t help but be an iteration of their former selves. “Ain’t That a Shame” is based on a chugging riff and open hi-hat time keeping from drummer Alex Rosamilia. It’s not unlike “45”, the lead single off of Handwritten, but the songwriting is more confident, almost cocky in its dismissive assertion. The title track pushes The Gaslight Anthem’s penchant for ballads to its limits, bringing some of the eerie theatrics of The Horrible Crowes into the mix to create a smooth, soulful track. “Dark Places”, the album’s closing track, is triumphant in its frustration. Lyrically it’s built on confusion, claiming, “one by one my words just got in the way,” as guitarist Alex Levine shines through an assortment of melodies that carry the track through its yearning progression. The highs of Get Hurt feel new and evolved, but not the way that an intentional disruption does. Instead they feel natural, weightless and spontaneous. They feel like they were written and recorded in a single burst of energy rather than in calculated phases.
The eventual truth about Get Hurt is that it struggles to realize the foundation that made The Gaslight Anthem engaging to begin with. While no song fully implodes, there are more than a few times when the acts of performance drown out the meaning. The dynamic whip of “Helter Skeleton”, charging out with a shout before breaking down to a steady beat, is disconcerting. It feels self-consciously staged. Even after dozens of listens, little about it hits home because the superficial elements – the rush of wailing guitars and Brian Fallon’s vocal range – wear off in time. While the band has always succeeded at compounding these elements with meaningful storytelling, Get Hurt too often unravels instead. “Underneath the Ground” wisps through a few verses with Fallon musing on his mortality, and murmuring almost incoherently in the background. The track is a departure from most of what the band have ever done before but in an unnecessary way. Fallon’s storytelling as the mouthpiece for The Gaslight Anthem has always been strongest when it’s center stage, instead of muddling itself in a dirge. The song becomes hard to digest, and passes before making an impact, giving way to “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” which feels cathartic in context.
I can’t help but wonder if years down the road Get Hurt will be the album that we still talk about. The Gaslight Anthem aimed high, and broke down some of their fundamental elements in order to explore the limits of their ability. Efforts like these are often difficult to appreciate immediately, but Get Hurt retains enough of their signature style to still succeed and carry the band forward. Tracks like “Get Hurt” and “1,000 Years” impress in new directions, while “Dark Places” and “Stray Paper” (along with the fantastic bonus track “Halloween”) are reminiscent of the intangible aura that The Gaslight Anthem have been evoking since Sink or Swim. It’s hard to imagine that there will be a general consensus on the status of Get Hurt in the band’s catalogue, and digesting the songs in the context of the band’s history is worth plenty of listens alone.