The Gaslight Anthem - Handwritten

When the Gaslight Anthem first crossed my radar four years ago, I remember being overjoyed that a punk band like this could still exist, that there was still gold left in them thar hills. The Gaslight Anthem that recorded The ’59 Sound, their ridiculously great 2008 breakout, were proud inheritors of a brawny, no-bullshit Jersey punk tradition, one that stretched from the Misfits clear through to Titus Andronicus and Screaming Females. But the Jersey bands they most resembled were the Bouncing Souls and Lifetime, ’90s punk bands whose breakneck tempos and fists-up choruses never attempted to disguise the naked sentimentality at the heart of their songs. When I reviewed the album for Pitchfork, I wrote that they were the sort of band “who sing in full-throated groan-man bellows, who unironically cover old country songs, who heroically keep the hair-grease industry afloat.” My editors also took out some lines about how a band like this still wears newsboy caps, and how the frontmen of bands like this inevitably release garbage acoustic side projects. (Guilty.) Bands like this meant the world to me when I was a teenager, and I’m being completely real when I say that I don’t know how my life would’ve turned out if I’d never discovered them. A funny thing happened since The ’59 Sound, though. The Gaslight Anthem effectively stopped being a punk band. You’d think this would mean they stopped being great, but no. They’re just great in a different way now.

When The ’59 Sound landed, the Gaslight Anthem drew Springsteen comparisons like nobody since the Hold Steady, and the band sure as hell didn’t do much to discourage that impression. In the years since, they’ve shared the stage with Springsteen himself, including a must’ve-been-awesome appearance at Springsteen’s old Asbury Park stomping grounds. And for Handwritten, their new one, they teamed up with Pearl Jam producer Brendan O’Brien, the presumable reason being that O’Brien produced virtually everything Springsteen released during the past decade. And on Handwritten, the Springsteen comparison suits Gaslight frontman Brian Fallon better than it ever has before. Fallon’s open-veined bleat has deepened and thickened over the past few years. It was always a formidable weapon, but now it’s got a hearty growl that’s just a few degrees removed from Springsteen. And these days, Fallon uses his voice in the same wounded soul-singer ways that Springsteen always has. He doesn’t rocket through verses anymore; he lingers and ponders and lets the regret and heartache sink in. And O’Brien earns his paycheck by fleshing the band’s sound out with sharp little touches, keyboards or harmonicas buried deep in the mix. O’Brien’s additions don’t distract from the band’s ferocious thunder; they flesh it out in ways so subtle that you barely notice them.

The Gaslight Anthem already tried slowing down once. After The ’59 Sound, they released American Slang, an album that pushed their vintage-cars iconography even harder than they’d done before, pulling back on their all-out gallop and attempting to tap some deep vein of anachronistic Americana. It didn’t really work out. American Slang isn’t a bad album, but it felt thin and disappointing after The ’59 Sound. That was the sort of follow-up that just served to make the world wish the band would return to what they’ve always been great at. Instead, they’ve slowed things even further on Handwritten, washing away nearly ever trace of their basement-hardcore past. Handwritten is an unflinching, unapologetic arena-rock record, with all the blazing solos and grunge-derived riffery that the term implies. And it works. The band hammers away at that style with the same grand, severe sincerity that they brought to their old hearty bashcore. Their old Jersey punk connection lives on in the whoa-oh-ohs that they love injecting into their songs — the single most classically commercial thing that the Misfits gave punk rock. But they’re aiming for bigger targets: Road-trip playlists, sports-highlight-reel soundtracks. And amazingly enough, they never overreach; they hammer down on every big uncool feeling they shoot for.

In Grantland, Steven Hyden hammered the album for failing to live up to the precedent in one big, important way: The lyrical-specificity zone. Where Springsteen made small, localized tales resonate huge, Fallon is happy to wade around in doofy sweeping aphorism. That’s always been an issue for him, and some of the moments on Handwritten are among his silliness. On “Too Much Blood,” he actually worries aloud about telling too much truth in his songs, which is a pretty clear sign that he’s taking his own shit too seriously. But I don’t know; I like how silly and overblown and steeped-in-tradition his lyrics are. They way they read, it’s like Fallon is trying to will himself into becoming a background character in American Graffiti or something. And the funny thing is that the music is strong enough to push him there.

Handwritten closes with the most resolutely unpunk thing that the band has ever done: “National Anthem,” a string-drenched acoustic breakup ballad that could well turn out to be the band’s “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life).” And it’s just a great song, swollen and powerful and catchy in its own schmaltzy way. It also final proof that this is a band uncool enough to attempt their own “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life).” In 2012, that takes serious balls.

Handwritten is out today on Mercury. Stream it here.

Other notable albums this week:

• Passion Pit’s ambitious depression-pop sophomore LP Gossamer.
• Purity Ring’s woozy hall-of-mirrors electro-pop debut Shrines.
• Micachu & The Shapes’ playfully discordant pop LP Never.
• Fang Island’s party-rock follow-up Major.
• The Antlers’ aquatic-themed Undersea EP.
• Beach Fossils side project Heavenly Beat’s debut Talent.
• Memphis country-rap legend 8Ball’s solo effort Life’s Quest.
• Lunice and Hudson Mohawke’s self-titled EP as TNGHT.
• Stereolab co-leader Laetitia Sadier’s solo bow Silencio.
• Hypnotic experimental-sludge duo OM’s Advaitic Songs.
• Family Band’s heavy-folk album Grace & Lies.
• Eternal Summers’ homespun indie-pop sophomore joint Correct Behavior.
• Three Mile Pilot’s dark desert-rock EP Maps.
• Slug Guts’ raucous, deranged postpunk attack Playin’ In Time With The Deadbeat.
• Mars Volta/At The Drive-In side project Anywhere’s self-titled acoustic psych LP.
• Gary War’s synth-weirdo opus Jared’s Lot.
• Foxygen’s jumpy, garagey Take The Kids Off Broadway.
• Former Mice Parade leader Caroline’s solo electro-pop collection Verdugo Hills Remixes.

Comments (43)
  1. See, I don’t know. This is a really good album, and these new songs absolutely rip live. But I think you’re selling the band’s legacy short by starting with the 59 Sound. I know that’s where most people got into the band, but it ignores what are arguably their two best, most heart-felt, most rocking records: Sink or Swim and Senor and the Queen. Both have balladry, acoustic and otherwise, in addition to pure punk pummel, and those songs always get the best reaction live, because they seem to have been written to be played for people. I know those weren’t made by the same band that made Handwritten, metaphorically anyway, but they provide the key to the americana and heart-on-sleeve aesthetic that everyone identifies as Springsteenian. Because sure, Springsteen is involved, but these really are songs about 30-something jersey guys, aka the band, and that maked them resonate with a large audience, even when they were just a basement band.

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  3. First of all, this album is great and is easily the best of the week. Though when I went back and listen to 59 Sound after I heard Handwritten for the first time I realized this is nowhere near as good as 59 Sound. That may be cause I always liked the more straight forward punk sound found on all of Sink or Swim and a little bit on 59 Sound, but I also think the lyrics on the first 3 albums and ep are much better than the ones found on this one. Not that these are bad by any means, just lacking compared to the rest of Fallon’s work.

    And The Horrible Crows album was actually pretty good. I couldn’t tell you if you really listened to it or just dismissed it as a ‘garbage acoustic project’ without checking it out.

  4. The Gaslight Anthem is a really solid band. They never have any complete duds, and are consistently good. They have a very American sound; mid-tempo, upbeat, and full of guitars. They’re the kind of band that no one hates, as there isn’t anything about them that you can really say is hate-worthy. Kind of like Young the Giant, they’re a very safe, average band. And I mean that in the best way possible.

  5. American Slang > 59 Sound, dammit! And I definitely don’t see how you could accuse American Slang of pushing the “vintage cars iconography” further than its predecessor, 59 Sound definitely has the more cliched lyrical turns. I really like that album and love a number of the songs, but it goes pretty hardcore into the whole “I think it’s the ’50s” thing lyrically. For good or bad I hear it more in 59 Sound than American Slang.

    Stoked to hear this one in any case.

  6. My takeaway from this album was hearing Brian Fallon telling his own stories in the songs instead of re-telling stories that might have been written in Springsteen, Petty, Woody, Westerberg or Strummer songs. It sounds like he’s getting away from his love affair with nostalgia, and not so much that he isn’t talking about babes, cars and leaving town, but they sound more like his actual experiences and not something Hollywood noir (although, “Mulholland Drive” was inspired by the Lynch film.) I thought American Slang was too focused on getting the songwriting pat down that some of that seemed a bit forced out and neglected that fire in their sound, but it makes good here since there are plenty of bad ass bro anthem rockers.

    Personally, I want these guys to make it huge. They’re so genuinely humble. I was at their record release show for The ’59 Sound at the Middle East in Cambridge back in ’08, and went back there this past weekend for their sold-out-in-a-second show, and they’re still the same dudes wondering how they even got to this point. Boston has an anti-moshing / stage-diving law now, and Brian Fallon was enforcing it from the get-go (“If you want to step on someone’s head, go to a Bon Jovi concert or something…” Also, not sure if that’s why they chose Fugazi as their walk-on music, but it made sense regardless.) And it was the greatest show I went to all year — Had to be 90 degrees with 550 people jammed into that basement of a venue, but everyone knew each and you walked out of there feeling like you experienced music expressed with sincerity.

    • Also, this article served a great purpose: revealing to me the identity of the person who gave the Gaslight Anthem an 8.6 on Pitchfork. Let’s be honest: Pitchfork tried to dust that review under the rug by not posting it late in the year. Anyhow, I know you can find this information out just by reading the by-line, but for some reason, I never bothered to go back and look it up. I remember when that review hit, punks were flipping out and mourning the loss of “their” band. What was funny is that on forums about the review, people were saying that the writer was some amateur who never got to write another review for Pitchfork. That obviously was not the case. Nice coincidence.

      This is from the day that Tom “made” the Gaslight Anthem’s indie cred. And yes, even back in 2008, I was tipping people off under the slightly more underscored name of Michael_Jackson_Jordan on the .org:
      http://www.punknews.org/article/31399/gaslight-anthem–frank-turner–polar-bear-club-

    • Boston definitely doesn’t have a “anti-moshing” law. Even the venues that have those “no moshing allowed” signs like Middle East (which wouldn’t even be affected by Boston venue laws), Paradise, and BMH will allow it for punk/ska bands- though not sure if Gaslight fits into that category as much anymore. But stage diving is usually enforced pretty strictly aside from the Big D halloween shows.

      That said Im pretty jealous- I overslept the day tix went on sale and missed out. I’m pretty sure a few sold for over 100 on stubhub which has to be some kind of record for the Middle East

      • I’m going by what I’ve read in the news in recent months (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-57396518-504083/mosh-madness-slam-dancing-banned-in-boston/). I forgot about the whole ordeal until I ventured out to the Middle East (my first show I’ve been to in the Boston area in a few years) and witnessed two guys who were both moshing and crowd-surfing get kicked out to the cheers of everyone in attendance, who seemed like they were aware of the rule. Fallon seemed to be pretty abreast on the situation as well, warning the audience not to do it right after the first song unless they wanted to see every venue shut down. He then got ticked when some bro in a Red Sox shirt didn’t listen to what he just said, as five bouncers picked that guy up and quickly showed him his way out.

        • Hm, didn’t see that- I think it must have to do with the band playing. I know for the Big D shows (2011) they said they worked out a deal with the venue and had extra staff to prevent most of the stage diving. Plus Gaslights not really a band to mosh to anyway.

          I went to one of the Dropkick shows at HoB the week that article was published and there a shit load of moshing going on in that crowd. I guess the bigger venues can just pay the fine though. I really hope they stop enforcing that law- Middle East downstairs is by far the best venue for a punk show I’ve ever been to.

          I might need to move somewhere where the PD doesn’t hate music. They shut down Odd Future almost everytime they’ve come here, but last time its cause there were actual fights going on. And last month they arrested a guitarist from Animals as Leaders for little to no reason (http://www.change.org/petitions/the-governor-of-ma-exonerate-javier-of-any-charges-from-the-boston-police-department)

          I’ve seen a few fights at a M83 and Sleigh Bells show yet never seen even a bloody nose at a ska or punk show. (Metal is a different story)

  7. They’ve always just sounded like Rise Against to me. I honestly expected Purity Ring to be the AotW.

  8. Great article, Tom. I especially appreciate the part about how the music shaped your life in high school. I would say the same thing had Gaslight Anthem been around when I was in high school. In fact, I openly lamented to my girlfriend recently (as we tried to get in the door for their sold-out show in my town) that I wish “59 Sound’ had been released in 2004 or 2005, because even “Sink or Swim” effectively post-dated my teenage years (I was 19).

    My one issue is with the commentary on “American Slang”, which to me is a thoroughly impressive record and consistently one of my favorites. The songs are bigger, yes, but they’re also organic, sincere, and more well-crafted than on “’59 Sound”. It marks the moment the band moved into their own.

  9. As a huge Gaslight Anthem fan I think this is their worst album but that hasn’t stopped me listening to it countless times this week already.

    Passion Pit’s album is my personal album of the week.

  10. Ok, starting listen #3 now. O’Brien makes a huge difference on the sound, that’s for sure. They sound thick. I definitely like it, but I dunno where it stands yet.

  11. sample line from this review: “this band isn’t punk anymore, the songs aren’t as great, the sound is overproduced, sounds totally like a cliched grunge throwback, but hey man, trust me, this is a good record”

    seriously, give this band their due and say something actually NICE about them instead of hammering away at them – it’s another great gaslight record

    speaking of “hammering,” a word mentioned no less than three times in this article, calling horrible crowes a “garbage acoustic side project” is a little harsh and sort of a lie – elsie breaks no new ground but is a surprisingly great listen

  12. Big fan of their first album, but I’m sorry…this band is treading dangerously close to sell out land. Top 40 is in their sights, you can feel it.

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    • That’s funny, because most people would associate such a stupid word like faggot with an electro-pop band with a singer who constantly sings in extremely high registers as opposed to a band made up of two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer who sing about girls and cars and whose singer has a rough, “rock n roll” voice.

      But faggot is an idiotic term anyways, and you’re an idiot for using it and you should be ashamed of yourself.

  14. I’m not even kidding, that “Handwritten” music video got me all teary-eyed like a little school girl. What is wrong with me.

  15. happy to see this, since everyone will probably overlook this album and talk about Gossamer(also a good record). the gaslight anthem is one of the few bands, along with titus adronicus and the hold steady, that aims for heart on sleeve blue collar rock that is right in my comfort zone. they are also one of the few mainstream alternative bands that i can truly enjoy(sorry shinedown). nice to see them getting the attention and respect they deserve from the press. also, that handwritten video warmed my cold cynical heart.

  16. I would have to say Reks Rebelutionary is my vote for album of the week.

  17. Jeez, Pitchfork gave it the #3 slot for today. Ridiculous. Though they are right that too many of the songs are him singing directly to women. A bit more lyrical variety would have been nice – I think Fallon talks about sitting/sleeping at women’s feet on like 3 songs. Still, #3?

  18. Does the bassist have a nose ring?

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