album review: the gaslight anthem – handwritten

the gaslight anthem @ cat's cradle

if i put too much blood on the page

If you’re already a fan of swaggering Jersey rockers the Gaslight Anthem, then you already know what Handwritten, the band’s fourth full-length and major label debut, sounds like: it sounds like the Gaslight Anthem, and it’s merely a matter of where it ends up falling on your own personal Gaslight album ranking scale. If you don’t know the band, on the other hand — and what have you been doing since 2008, living under a rock? — then Handwritten is as good a Gaslight album as any to introduce you to the clever word play of frontman Brian Fallon’s lyrics and the bombast of the straight up guitar rock that, yes, obviously, draws conclusions to the band’s openly-admitted influences Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones.

(And, my God, if you haven’t heard last year’s startling, note-perfect cover of “Tumbling Dice”, put Handwritten down slowly and back away until you run into it. Then listen to it ten times in a row. Then come back.)

Handwritten opens with ’45’, the first single from the record and Fallon’s overt love song to music, a theme that’s always run through his music but comes to forefront in the chorus here: hey hey, turn the record over. It’s a great opener, but the album roars into full gear with the title track afterwards, guitars that crash into agreement with no introduction, and the wailing Whoa-oh of the vocals before backing off into Fallon’s growl — “Handwritten”, as its own song and as the title track to the record, confirms the subject here is the universality of song, of lyrics painstakingly copied as a declaration of love. It’s a new guitar sound for them, as well, clear like a bell under the verses, and pealing off after the final verse: I’m in love with the way you’re in love with the moonlight.

The whoa-ohs of “Handwritten” segue into the oh sha la las of “Here Comes Your Man”; there’s a sense of a deeper delving into what came before them in this record. If The ’59 Sound sounded like Bruce Springsteen, then Handwritten pulls as much from the pop songs of the late ’60s, even with the line I’ll grow my hair back out as a nod to the ’70s that came after the era of harmonized choruses and syllables where words can’t fill the void of too much feeling: not one moment will I stand for it.

It isn’t all gems — “Mulholland Drive” and “Keepsake” are run of the mill middle of the road Gaslight tracks; good but not outstanding — but when Handwritten picks back up, it backs back up with a resounding crash and, well, “Howl”. Everyone is raving about this track, and it’s all correct: it’s a two minute shot straight to the veins, old pop songs on scratchy records and Brian roaring over the guitars and drums and bass. It’s the most punk song they’ve released in years, it’s the fiercest driver on this album, and it’s in the perfect place, an album turner, a song that should rattle into your bones live, raising goosebumps on your whole body and bringing tears to your eyes and the desire to dance without caring what anyone thinks. The lyrics, oh, they burn and shift and drive: does anything still move you since you’re educated now and I love the country movement and the way your dress would wave on your hips and do you believe there’s still some magic left inside our souls. It is a perfect two minute punk song, and it reminds me that Gaslight started out as punks, and it reminds me that their hearts still are.

Handwritten rolls out to its conclusion with the catchy “Biloxi Parish”, featuring a scorching Alex Rosamilia guitar solo, the ’50s pop chorus of “Desire”, the Gaslight heroine anthem “Mae”, and the quietly bombastic “National Anthem”. “Biloxi Parish” is an ear wormer, and “Desire” sounds like it would be a gorgeous stripped down acoustic as it does with the thumping drums that hold its center together. It peaks at “Howl”, this record, but that song as a central point is worth it. It makes everything else around it better, it pulls back the curtain and illuminates the way the band has grown since the early days, even if the record feels “familiar”.

And if this record does feels familiar or derivative, as detractors will say it does, well, perhaps that’s the point: Brian Fallon writes ineffably human songs, about love and fast cars and vinyl records, and that’s always been what Gaslight does best. Fallon and the band take things that everyone feels, loneliness and a song that feels written only for you — he’s penned a few of those for me, in fact — and turn it into a summer windows down stereo up sort of song. It’s more punk than American Slang, it’s more polished that Sink or Swim, it’s fiercer than The ’59 Sound, which for all its genius is still a kind of elegy. It probably isn’t Gaslight’s best — likely they’ll never surpass the 12 song perfection of ’59 Sound which as I said when I wrote about American Slang is fine because shit, wouldn’t you love to have made one this as perfect as that record — but it’s them, right there open-hearted, and it’s great.

The Gaslight Anthem plays a totally completely sold out show at the Cradle tonight, with my beloved Dave Hause opening, but if you’re really desperate — and you should be, as this is likely the last gasp of club tours for the band before they move up to arenas and sell that shit out, too — somebody in the parking lot or on Craigslist will probably sell you a ticket for three times face value, not that either I or the Cradle endorses that, I’m just saying. Twice would be worth it if you can negotiate. Cat’s Cradle, doors 7PM show 8PM. (PS If you have tickets, make sure you don’t miss Dave. I promise you’ll walk out in love and ready to spread my Everything Needs More Dave Hause theory to the world.)

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