Album Reviews

The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten

on July 25, 2012, 8:00am
Gaslight Anthem - Handwritten C-
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I discovered The ’59 Sound in the summer of 2010, the same summer I discovered alcohol, drugs, and heartbreak. It was an emotional time for me, and The Gaslight Anthem provided the soundtrack. Tales of small-town love and lust, Brian Fallon’s lyrics make protagonists out of regular chicks and dudes. Glamorous, song-worthy tragedies befall these characters, and although my paltry tragedies of the summer of 2010 would have made one boring-ass song, The ‘59 Sound hit home for me.

It hit home for a lot of people. Following the release of their previous album, American Slang, New Jersey’s The Gaslight Anthem amassed a fanbase so large that label SideOneDummy could no longer accommodate the band, so they made the jump to major label Mercury for Handwritten. What is it about Fallon’s songs that connects with people? Well, what was it about Springsteen’s songs that connected with people? Mellencamp’s? Westerberg’s?

They sang about us—the common folk trudging through life. So does Fallon. He romanticizes the lives of everyday people by seeing past our banalities. In a Gaslight Anthem song, we become endearing anti-heroes, damsels, and hopeless lovers. “With this pen, I thee wed/From my heart to your distress,” Fallon sings on title track “Handwritten”. He takes me back to that summer: I’m driving at night listening to The ’59 Sound, projecting myself onto the lyrics while yearning for a girl who moved away after I irrationally fell for her. Very melodramatic in hindsight, but Fallon knew my melancholy; he knew my pain. Or at least that’s what I told myself as rationalization for how ridiculously sappy I was being. Songs about those who listen to music (and those who make it) have been a running theme throughout Fallon’s career. Handwritten’s opening track “45” uses the act of flipping a record over as a metaphor for perseverance. If only it were that easy. “45” sees The Gaslight Anthem returning to the punk rock speed of its early album; however, the band only occasionally mines that sound on Handwritten. It’s a rock ‘n’ roll record through and through.

Fallon started working on this record after finishing up with his side-project, The Horrible Crowes. With sparser instrumentation, looser arrangements, and bluesy rhythm, The Crowes sounded like Gaslight Anthem via early-Tom Waits. This sound rubs off on more than a few songs on Handwritten, undoubtedly the strongest tracks here. On “Here Comes My Man”, Fallon’s melodies intertwine with jangly guitars. And they’re fine melodies—some of the finest he’s ever written. When he sings, “Oh sha la la, listen honey, here comes my man,” you hear Fallon as a soul singer, one with control over every nuance in his voice. He’s come a long way since the raw ferocity of Sink or Swim. On “Too Much Blood”, his vocal range resembles Chris Cornell; it comes out of nowhere and snatches the ear. Again, Fallon pens meta-lyrics– a song about writing a song that’s too personal. Guitarist Alex Rosamilia warrants mention here, as he lashes out with southern rock twang and a short-but-sweet guitar solo.

Handwritten has heart, but musically, the band’s lost its edge. For all of the classic rock inflections pouring out of these songs, Brendan O’Brien’s production works well, providing a sheen that brings out the rasp in Fallon’s voice and the tone of Rosamilia’s guitar. But there’s too much sheen. On past albums, The Gaslight Anthem played with dirt under its nails, like a garage band. Handwritten sounds tame in comparison. When the band reaches punkish tempos (“45”, “Howl”, “Desire”), the guitars sound restrained and controlled; they no longer sprint and dance like they did on The ’59 Sound. An indie-label punk band recorded that album, while a major-label rock band recorded this one. We’ll leave it at that.

Although the band sounds like it’s holding back, Fallon sings with passion and gusto. He makes you feel something. When Fallon gets nostalgic, you get nostalgic. When he sings about passionately embracing his lover in a dark parking lot, pressed up against a car, you think about that one time you held someone close against your first jalopy. Fallon is just a guy like you and me, and that’s something universal we want in our idols, rock or otherwise. Handwritten houses some of Fallon’s strongest compositions to date, and while it ain’t punk, neither is The Gaslight Anthem. They’re full-on heartland rockers.

Essential Tracks: “Here Comes My Man”, “Too Much Blood”

16 comments

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Morivida Founder
August 3, 2012 at 3:37 pm

great review, very strong images. Who cares about all of you frustrated negative people of can’t grasp the intimacy and reality romance they bring to the table. Springsteen BTW was doing an appearance at their show in december in Ashbury Park NJ. Guess he likes the influence he’s had on them. Jalous anyone?

Cheche
August 2, 2012 at 10:02 pm

I really think this album is the banding coming into its own. Evolving into the rock band they are but not completely abandoning their punk roots. When you hear Fallon perform acoustic versions of his rockers it’s clear to see that is where he is most comfortable vs succumbing to a major label.

Johnson
July 28, 2012 at 8:22 pm

Lost their edge…did you only listen to like 3 songs, they actually gained a bit of an edge, more of a hard rock sound on this than on American slang. This album is like an A, you don’t even mention the title track, which is probably the best song on the album.
The guitars are not restrained, no they’re not going to sound like they did on sink or swim, but they had a different sound by then, I think the guitars were more restrained on 59 sound than this album. They are much better musicians now than 3 years ago, or even 2 years ago. This is the album of the year, whether or not Brian “speaks to your pain” or whatever.

John Nash
July 25, 2012 at 6:42 pm

Less about you, more about the album please

Bram
July 25, 2012 at 5:33 pm

Hey Jon, I think you’ve written a good review here and The 59 Sound, though discovered earlier, played a similar part in my life. The album is obviously a step into more of an accessible sound for the band and this is proven by the amount of times I’ve heard ’45’ on the alternative station in my city, let alone the inclusion of Brendan O’Brien as producer. I do feel your review romanticizes too much with the Gaslight of the past and the reaction you’re experiencing was what most fans like ourselves experienced with American Slang. I think this is an excellent rock album in a time where most college kids will spend $100 on a light show. From the sounds of it, you actually like the album, which I think should result in a higher rating. Anyways, keep up the writing and don’t let the internet folk bring you down.

JR
July 25, 2012 at 5:23 pm

I stopped reading this after I read he discovered alcohol and drugs in 2010. On the wagon a whole 1.5 years. No cred.

Benoit DeCommish
July 25, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Yeah I stopped reading this album when he referenced Springsteen. We get it, bro.

Upward
July 25, 2012 at 5:23 pm

It’s not the reviewer’s fault that Fallon blatantly rips off Bruce. Honestly, this review was very kind to TGA. ‘Handwritten’ showcases zero originality in both songwriting and production.

Josh
July 25, 2012 at 6:47 pm

Because being inspired by an artist means someone is ripping them off.

Upward
July 26, 2012 at 12:18 am

I’d put stealing someone’s vocal delivery and very unique lyrical approach in the “ripping them off” category, but that’s just me.

Josh
July 26, 2012 at 9:28 pm

Yup because Brian Fallon chose how his throats was structured and how his voice sounds. And again if he grows up listening to Bruce Springsteen don’t you think his writing is gonna turn out to be like Bruce Springsteens? Like Cage the Elephant listens to a lot of Nirvana and The Pixies so Thank You Happy Birthday had hints of their style.

LMC
July 28, 2012 at 2:16 pm

…you are aware Bruce is a fan of them just like they are a fan of him…so- who are you? Oh right, not Bruce Springsteen

Lauren
July 25, 2012 at 3:04 pm

It’s a great review. The end.

Jaxx
July 31, 2012 at 1:45 am

Bottom line is that this album is absolute shit. All of us TGA fans wanted it to be amazing but let us be honest. It sucks. There is not one memorable song. When American slang came out, it was in my car’s cd player for 6 months. Handwritten was lucky to get three days. Anyone outside of older fans asked me to turn that shit off. I wanted their Joshua Tree or their version of an album that takes it to the next level but we got a step in the wrong direction. Another album this bad and they will fizzle.

Doug Murphy
July 25, 2012 at 1:30 pm

i couldnt finish this review after i read the line “Fallon knew my melancholy; he knew my pain”. pathetic. and CoS used to be the good guys. hire some journalists

Paolo Matheou
August 6, 2012 at 10:18 pm

Pathetic it may well be, but hey, so true. TGA’s charme lays not only in its americana-inspired riffs and punkish attitude, but also (and foremost) in Fallons ability to write lyrics that truly resonate in any grown up who’s experienced life’s full range of tests and trials, be it failed relationships, loss, or just plain discomfort. This is music and poetry for people who FEEL.