It has always been to The Gaslight Anthem’s credit that they – a bar band from New Jersey who sing about girls, cars etc – have never sought to evade the obvious comparison. They have referred to Bruce Springsteen’s songs in theirs (from “High Lonesome”, from their tremendous 2008 album The ’59 Sound: “At night I wake up with the sheets soaking wet/It’s a pretty good song/Baby you know the rest.”) They have invited their hero onto their stages, and been invited onto his. They have understood and acknowledged that the only circumstances in which a review of their work would not mention Bruce Springsteen is if the critic in question is trying to win a bet.
So it is only fair enough that The Gaslight Anthem have Springsteen duet on the title track of their first album in nearly a decade. “History Books” the song – like much of History Books the album – serves as joyous confirmation that The Gaslight Anthem are entirely unburdened by concern that their near decade in the wilderness has made barely any difference to their sound. “History Books” is, very much, a Gaslight Anthem song – an urgent rocker with a soaring, singalong chorus and a fretboard-wringing, foot-on-the-foldback Alex Rosamilia guitar solo all offsetting Brian Fallon’s favoured lyrical undertone of fidgety angst. Springsteen takes the second verse, stoically embracing the role of ghost of Fallon future (“I’m keeping time, one day goes by/I try to live to the next one”).
In picking up around about where they left off, The Gaslight Anthem have the advantage that they were always old before their time. Any impression of them as mono-dimensionally exuberant wild-eyed youthful tearaways living gleefully in the moment never survived a second listen – tracks like “45”, from 2012’s Handwritten, married pugnacious punk rock with lachrymose melancholy like no American band since The Replacements.
One thing that did change during The Gaslight Anthem’s long absence was that the group’s members – Fallon, Rosamilia, bassist Alex Levine and drummer Benny Horowitz – all passed 40. It suits them. If the early Gaslight Anthem albums were roughly equally freighted with a fear of getting older and a fear of not living that long, History Books is where they grapple with the prospect that middle age is at once more and less terrifying than their twenty and thirty-something selves imagined.
The opening lines of the opening track – “Spider Bites” – are “My teeth are crumbling structures/My thoughts are spider bites.” However, any fears that Fallon is about to start griping about this strange pain in his lower back, and the long hair on these young men these days, are swiftly assuaged: “Spider Bites” rocks like one of the sweeter moments of The Stranglers, and locates a deft existential balance between optimism and fatalism (“We circle round the sun until some day we won’t… I’ll love you forever ’til the day that I don’t”).
Not all of History Books rages against the dying of the light in top gear, however. Fallon’s excursion into balladry with The Horrible Crowes’ Elsie predated The Gaslight Anthem’s hiatus, but he shifts into whiskey-stained crooner mode on a few tracks. The sombre, contemplative – and, well, autumnal – “Autumn” returns to the recurring theme of enjoying the moment versus bracing for its passing (“I know someday/It’s gonna be all over”), and contains at least one line you can imagine Springsteen being annoyed he didn’t write first (“I wish I could do my life over/I’d be young better now”). “Empires” is a thing of Tom Waits-ish gravitas. Its key message – plausibly the key message of History Books entire – is whispered to an accompaniment of mournfully intoned closing-time piano, furnished by Thomas Bartlett, aka Doveman: “There’s a God up in Heaven with the calendar marked. . . and he’ll show us no mercy.”
But for all the rueful, wistful, middle-aged preoccupations of History Books, its two most emblematic tracks, “Little Fires” and “Positive Charge” catch The Gaslight Anthem at their most glorious and furious. On the former, Fallon offers amends to someone he once knew (“You were young and beautiful/And I was dumb and beautiful”). On the latter, he looks for that balance between what he doesn’t miss (“…like I was dressing up for a coffin to lie down in”) and what he’d like back (“Plug it into my veins and make me love this life again”). Both songs, like History Books as a whole, capture that perspective on youth which is a mixed blessing of having lived that long again: the man reuniting with the boy he once was, and being unsure whether he most wants to hug him or slap him.