Album review: The Gaslight Anthem burns on with ‘Handwritten’
“Handwritten” is the Gaslight Anthem’s first release with Mercury Records after leaving SideOneDummy last year. Recorded in Nashville, “Handwritten” is stylistically closer to “The ’59 Sound” than its more recent, largely midtempo release “American Slang,” and a few times derivative of their 2008 debut “Sink or Swim.”
“Sink or Swim” and sometimes “The ’59 Sound” tend to get called punk because they’re speedy, guitar-driven songs filled with uncomplicated chord changes and the kind of punch that can hit you square in the gut. The thing is, the Gaslight Anthem has just as much ability to bypass the gut and go straight for the feelies, and this, at least to me, is more pop than punk, although I readily admit to deferring to the Supreme Court’s method of definition: I can’t define punk, but I know it when I hear it. With that said, the Gaslight Anthem is not punk. But then, at least in today’s context, neither are the Ramones.
The Gaslight Anthem is an American rock ‘n’ roll band, one whose songs are true to form and country. It’s a band equally comfortable as bombastic headliners and balladeers. It’s also a songwriter’s band, and Brian Fallon — lead vocalist, also guitar — writes as tribute to the essential components of the style.
Fallon knows well that place is evocative, and he writes with a strong sense of it. In addition to “Mullholland Drive” and “Biloxi Parish” on “Handwritten” are the career-long references to Fallon’s home state of New Jersey, a place that exports primarily chemicals and musicians and informs the latter so well in terms of lyrics.
While we’re on the subject, what is it about Jersey boys and their cars, that regional peculiarity that causes them to sexualize the lines, surfaces and anthropomorphic qualities of engines? It’s a disposition the Gaslight Anthem shares in older songs like “Old White Lincoln” and “The Backseat” as well as “Here Comes My Man” on “Handwritten,” and makes their albums so unplaceable as any other country’s sons. There’s such devotion there that it makes me wonder if these lyrics, Alex Rosamilia’s guitar, and the solid, on-the-floor drums of Benny Horowitz are conscious Americana or just an unbridled case of Id.
Anyone raised on the worship of American rock ‘n’ roll can be forgiven the occasional ounce of cheese, which is why Fallon should be allowed to spread it on a little thick at times. This red-blooded pathos is heavy on songs like “Mae,” wherein Fallon addresses a girl as “with your Bette Davis eyes and your mama’s party dress” and describes himself as “with my faded jeans and faraway eyes.” There’s a difference between pandering and romanticism, though, and Fallon at least seems sincere. Even the most dreamboat lyrics and addictive choral hooks (“oh sha la la, oh sha la la / listen honey here comes my man” in “Here Comes My Man”) are performed genuinely, and most importantly, the man can write the hell out of an earworm.
“Handwritten” doesn’t quite escape being overwrought, though. “Keepsake” probably soothes some psychological wounds, and I’m probably a cynical bastard, but the attempt to come to terms with a mostly absentee father is out of place on this album. Likewise, “Too Much Blood” is a misstep, the churning bass riff and Fallon’s gurgling vocals in the verses sounding less like the Gaslight Anthem and more like the Gaslight Anthem momentarily possessed by a hair metal band.
Full of anthems and sentiment, why “Handwritten” wasn’t released on the 4th of July is beyond me, but at least the month is right, and if you’re interested in doing yourself a Jersey-sized favor, you’ll keep it on deck for an end-of-the-summer road trip.