Verdict: 4.5 / 5
What follows a dream fulfilled? Late June of 2009 must have been a surreal experience for The Gaslight Anthem. While touring for their stellar second album The ’59 Sound, they played England’s Glastonbury festival. It was a big enough achievement in its own right for four guys who never envisioned their music reaching beyond the basements and bars of New Jersey. By then the band had garnered praise as the heir apparent to Bruce Springsteen, and no further confirmation was necessary after The Boss joined them on stage for the album’s title track. Sure Bruce got some words wrong, but the moment stood out as generations celebrating a kinship. These men were no doubt cut from the same cloth, and you heard it through The Gaslight Anthem’s first three records that each offered variations on soulfully drenched rock. Handwritten is their major label debut. It’s a stunning effort that sees them ease off on the Springsteen buffer and attempt to write some history of their own.
The band have never shied away from admitting their influences, they’ve been forthright about it with hearts firmly placed on sleeves. It’s never come off as empty name-dropping either. While potentially anachronistic if mishandled, the references to blue-collar hardship and heartache, greasers and gals feel no less relevant now. Every word and guitar chord feels lived in. Novelist Nick Hornby penned something in the liner notes that about sums it up, saying “I know a lot of stuff sounds tired and derivative, and makes you feel as though rock music is exhausted. It’s hard to find new ways to tell stories and write songs.” Hornby’s solution to that accounts for the very ethos of The Gaslight Anthem: “you’re going to carry on the tradition, and you’re going to do it in your own voice, and with as much conviction and authenticity and truth as you can muster.”
In essence it’s a pretty simple formula, but with Handwritten The Gaslight Anthem make it seem absolutely vital. Hornby goes on to write “Anyone who has ever been frustrated by anything – a girl, a boy, a job, a self (especially that) – can listen to this music and feel understood and energised.” Frontman Brian Fallon has a lot to do with that. His gravelly voice extinguishes any saccharine implications of faster paced punk songs, and it roughs up slower blues-rock numbers nicely too. It goes beyond such affectations though; there is refreshing sincerity at play here. Things that feel this good are usually coupled with guilt, but it’s irony-free, requiring minimal academic distance to savour the emotional heft. It grants a certain purity to the band’s craft without them conceding naivety.
First single ‘45’ provides a fitting opener. Appealing for new beginnings Fallon sings “Let somebody else lay at her feet”. Right after the last repetition of that line you’ll hear a magnificent new texture veteran producer Brendan O’Brien mined from Fallon’s vocals. It’s impossible not to be moved as he sings it because you can sense his teeth gritting with shivering intensity. The album’s title track follows; Fallon is carried to his first piercing line by Alex Levine’s smooth bass rhythms before lead guitarist Alex Rosamilia helps propel the chorus into classic status. The song is massive but redemptive on behalf of lyrics like: “did you want to drive without a word in between/ I can understand you need a minute to breathe/ and to sew up the seams after all of this defeat.” On ‘Here Comes My Man’ the band inhabits a female perspective. Successful because it’s approached with empathy in lines like: “please understand me/ you can’t just dance around me”. The mid-section of the album drops the tempo. ‘Mulholland Drive’ is a gritty track, topped off by Rosamilia’s swirling guitar solo. ‘Keepsake’ is a chugging slow burner about an absent father that Fallon rips into with his bluesy growl. Things pick up for an electrifying two minutes on ‘Howl’, namesake of the Allen Ginsberg poem. It carries the energy and bluster of a live performance along with poignant lyrics on letting go: “Shake it out/ does anything still move you since you’re educated now/ and all grown up and travelled so well” It’s been a live staple for a while already, but ‘Biloxi Parish’ stands out in studio form. It’s a proposal of devotion, reaching fever pitch on the soaring chorus where Fallon pines, “who else can take all your blood and your curses/ nobody I’ve seen you hanging around.” The gentle and nostalgic ‘Mae’ is the penultimate track before acoustic closer ‘National Anthem’.
Trying to eclipse what The Gaslight Anthem achieved with The ’59 Sound is a near impossible task. With Handwritten though, they’ve aimed to tread new territory, adding to rock’s rich tradition instead of merely relying on it. Collectively the band’s output carries the promise of longevity, and they possess enough musical integrity to suggest that somewhere down the line they may well be revered as heralds of a generation that chose sincerity over indifference.