“Handwritten” was the fourth album by the American band the Gaslight Anthem. Almost whenever one reads a review or sees a report of the band they are inevitably described as The Clash meets Bruce Springsteen. If it’s ot that it’s Tom Petty meets Pearl Jam. But it’s not a bad description. For one both of those two things are done well. The sound of the band does not sound exploitative of those artists or
The Gaslight Anthem’s popularity has been rising slowly but seemingly constantly since their first album. The culmination of that success saw them play crowds of thousands at European festivals in 2015. What fans seem to zoom their focus on are the well written songs, together with the high energy playing. Of course, it helps garner a larger fanbase when the usual subject matter of the lyrics is having to
do with the lives of ordinary, working class people (like with Springsteen songs) and their struggles. But unlike other bands that seemed designed to work this particular market niche, GA’s doomed romanticism seems earnest.
Their sound is usually steeped a classic rock, played fast and with distorted guitar and occasional guitar leads and (most of the songs anyway) like the late ’70’s punk bands. When they are not doing that, Brian Fallon takes inspiration from folk-rock like Bob Dylan and Nebraska era Springsteen.
Speaking of that, this album has a whole batch of songs highlighting the aforementioned characteristics. 45 was one of the band’s biggest hits, most well known songs and when it was released as a single it helped get traction for the soon to be released album. As a result this is still the band’s most commercially successful album. The sound comes fitted with a fast tempo, large chorus and familiar
lyrical territory dealing with hope and change. Singer and main songwriter,Brian Fallon seems to have been determined to include as many New Jersey imagery as told by Springsteen as the length of the song would take. There’s the 45 record reference, the key and engine one, the lover laying at her feet and of course, the wish for change for down-trodden. The trick is in how it sounds and is delivered. The success
may have been a result of the audience hearing honesty in this, not exploitation of a sentimental theme.
Other highlights include Biloxi Parish and Howl, sounding like songs taken from a classic folk songbook of the ’60s and shocked into rock format by the great backing ( of Alex Rosamilia – guitar, backing vocals, Alex Levine – bass guitar, backing vocals, Benny Horowitz – drums, percussion, backing vocals,Brian Fallon – lead vocals, guitar). By this time proof is in the pudding when it comes to the writing. The 59 Sound or Great Expectations were not flukes, but rather part of a devoloping repertoire.
“Mullholland drive” runs through quicksilver rhymes about love and loss and makes use of the title borrowed from the David Lynch classic cult movie, “Handwritten” tries to sow up the seams and “Too much blood” takes stock of all the changes (“eternal witness to the pride and the shame”).
The precious gem on this album is “Keepsake”. In a time of post-modern rock, where every genre has been attempted so much that it can practically be programmed for a specific emotional impact, the real shock is hearing a song designed to be played for large venues, that does not sound cynical or ironic. As far as writing method goes, Fallon’s becomes more sophisticated here giving the framework to the story
of a family drama. The details and specifics are cleverly left out. It gives the empty canvas for the audience to project their own scenario and meaning.
One could say that the Gaslight Anthem are revisionists of sounds that have been played before (and according to some, better). This is true. But they shine especially when placed under comparison. Bands recreate the sound and image of of other famous bands all the time in hopes of attracting part of their fanbase or simply out of fan devotion and lack of original ideas. But the Gaslight Anthem creates it’s own identity specifically because of the bands it chooses to reference.
They do sound energetic and heartfelt like the Clash or the Replacements. They do like the same stories about the redemption of the common man like Springsteen. They get on the record because a large group of people can easily access their music. But they play it loud and tight and their take on the subjects are their own. That’s their angle and it works very well.
“Handwritten” was an album announced by the press and band themselves as a return to the sound that had made them well known. The ’59 Sound album especially. The band would undergo changes stylistically after this album, with odd, yet positive results. As of right now the band is on hiatus and having won over a large and dedicated fanbase, there are those that worry that “Handwritten” is destined to be a
high point in career that by now may have sadly ended.