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.
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.