History Books, the new album from Gaslight Anthem has a few things going for it: it’s their first album as a band in six years, it’s more musically interesting than some of their earlier work, and they pulled in Bruce Springsteen to sing on the title track. This should be enough to generate some buzz for a group that deserves more attention than it gets.
If you’re not familiar with the quartet’s oeuvre, this is a New Jersey band that’s been working the alternative rock corner since 2007/2008. Their second album The ’59 Sound broke large-ish and won them a large fan base — particularly in the UK. Between 2008 and 2014, they put out an album every two years, with a fair amount of commercial and critical success. Not in Gold Record territory, so far but developing a reputation for solid rock records.
The band’s sound is a little bit like if you took two acts from the 90s, The Gin Blossoms and Stone Temple Pilots, and you mixed them with some Springsteen and just a pinch of a classic rock band like The Eagles. If that sounds incoherent and inconsistent then, well, that’s the wrong description, because this is a band with a coherent and consistent sound. And that’s probably my biggest issue with their work: 2014’s Handwritten and 2008’s The ’59 Sound are of a piece: the songs are big, blocky rock songs that are tough to distinguish from one another.
The first track on History Books, “Spider Bites” has a little more juice than a lot of their other stuff — it sounds more like something you could conceivably hear on college radio. “History Books”, with Springsteen, is also a standout. I find it difficult not to compare the rest of the album to something like a ham sandwich: very solid, very filling, not astonishing.
A low point, for me, is track three, “Autumn”, with its loping meter and a refrain that mindlessly references wearing black jeans in, you guessed it, autumn. There’s not a lot of meat on the bones there. On the flip side, “Michigan, 1975” is an agreeable track in the alt-rock vein.
History Books is the group’s sixth studio album, so their sound is what you might call “locked in” at this point. Personally, I’d be curious to see what these fellas could do with an experimental punk record or an album of Johnny Cash covers — something to shake up their sound.