The Gaslight Anthem has always been hard; with GET HURT, the New Jersey-based rock 'n' roll band get heavy. Since coming together in 2007, the band has joyfully injected aspects of rock's most universal languages -- arena rock and barroom blues, folk and pure pop -- into punk's round hole, ultimately forging its own powerful, populist sound. 2012's HANDWRITTEN proved the apogee for The Gaslight Anthem's anthemic approach, scoring top 10 chart debuts in eight countries around the globe. Having climbed the mountaintop, the band has chosen to push their music farther than ever before, not via extra instrumentation or expanded arrangements, but by blowing up the template from stem to stern. Massive melodies and shout-to-the-top choruses are still well in hand, but songs like "1,000 Years" and the searing title track draw on grunge and symphonic pop, soul and psychedelia, all shot through with limitless ambition, experimental energy, and collectivist spirit.
"It wasn't exactly clear when we started what we were going to do," says singer/guitarist Brian Fallon. "We just knew we had to change it up in order to maintain being a relevant band to ourselves. There really wasn't anything else to say or do on those avenues that we had already walked on."
Having recorded HANDWRITTEN with producer Brendan O'Brien (Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen), the band chose a less likely collaborator in Mike Crossey. In April 2014, Gaslight Anthem and the Irish- born producer -- known for his work with Arctic Monkeys, Jake Bugg, and The 1975, among others -- convened at Nashville's Blackbird Studios. From the jump, the band's M.O. was to "just try everything," says Fallon. "Nothing was off limits, nothing was off the table. Everything was fair game."
Fallon suggests the sessions first bore unanticipated fruit with the album-opening "Stay Vicious." Rolling drums tumble into a gargantuan neo-metallic stomp, an instantly transformative riff that hearkens the alternative rock that soundtracked the band's coming of age. Suffice to say, "Stay Vicious" blasted the Gaslight Anthem's creative door off its hinges.
"We've never done anything like that before," Fallon says. "I thought Mike was going to think I went off the deep end. But he told me this is great, keep going like this. That sort of freed me up to go and try everything else."
With songs "all coming from different places than we'd ever come from before," the Gaslight Anthem reexamined and honed its own instincts and methodology. Electronic instruments and computer technology were used for the first time in their history, adding unexpected rhythmic flux to Alex Levine and Benny Horowitz's indefatigable engine room. Long inspired by post punk adventurism, Alex Rosamila's guitars are textured and harmonized; noisy and stuttering on tracks like "Rollin' and Tumblin'" and the closing "Dark Places." Up front, Fallon sought a vocal sound to match the musical unrest, layering his trademark shout with processed harmonies and a wracked roar he joking likens to "trying to sing like a lady in the 60s."
"I was just trying anything," he says. "I didn't feel locked into that same low baritone."
To be clear: The Gaslight Anthem of GET HURT is the same band that first broke out worldwide with 2008's THE '59 SOUND, only with greater range, skill, and yes, maturity. For all their amplified muscle and intricacy, songs like "Get Hurt" and the haunting "Break Your Heart" reveal a finely limned subtlety, etched in hitherto untouched shades of sonic grey.
"To start a song quietly and just let it breathe for a minute," says Fallon, "those things were difficult to do. We were trying to let the soft moments be soft. Everybody needs a break, even on a record."
Fallon took a parallel approach towards his lyrics, exploring more abstract and oblique narrative paths to better express his own emotional truth. The expanded depth of field sees his always vibrant, character-based storytelling colored by increasingly complex use of language and stream of consciousness spontaneity.
"It was a real working out process," he says. "I just said, I'm going to write what I think and what I'm dealing with at this moment. I don't know if it's the truth or if this feeling is going to last, but I'm just going to let it out. I just let it go. That's what was happening, that was real."
"Stray Paper" -- which features impassioned backing vocals from the one and only Sharon Jones -- provides what is perhaps the album's most transcendent moment, its intricately orchestrated hooks and modernist dynamics unlike anything in The Gaslight Anthem's remarkable canon. Rich with imagery and metaphorical flight, the song's magic realism proved a revelatory mind blower for its creator.
"I had never written from that point of view," Fallon says. "With 'Stray Paper' I feel that I touched something that I'd like to continue through the rest of my career. I would like to continue down that path and find out what else is there."
The Gaslight Anthem faced a dilemma that has confronted many bands in a similar position -- how to keep on growing while holding true to the initial vision that has earned them a legion of fervent fans around the world. Their response is audacious, energized and enduring. GET HURT might be defiantly transitional but at its heart, the Gaslight Anthem's song remains the same.
"You can never lose who you are," Fallon says. "No matter how much you change, you can never lose that core of what makes you you. If you're honest with yourself, that core remains. You don't find yourself lost in some genre you have no business being in -- you create your own."