The Gaslight Anthem - Handwritten Release Date: July 24, 2012
Record Label: Mercury Records
For the first time, I'm not scared that people aren't going to like this record. I don't care what Bruce or Eddie Vedder or any of my friends think of it. I don't care. If you want to hang with us, you've got to grow with us. That's the deal.
Well, damn. Who knows what exactly went down in Brian Fallon’s universe after the release of American Slang and then The Horrible Crowes’ Elsie, but whatever happened, we should be thankful for it. We should be thankful for Fallon’s new state of mind, this outlook that he finally no longer has to top himself – top The ’59 Sound, that is – and that he can just pour everything out into his music.
The '59 Soundis one of those things I’m always chasing to make something as good as [again]. I’m also chasing to leave it alone because it’s perfect the way it is. It’s hard for a musician to realize that that was done already: You don’t need to write '59 Sound because you already did. Now you have to find something that’s equally as good, but different.
It’s pretty scary to think that albums as good as American Slang and Elsie might have been written while something held Fallon back in some intangible way; it’s spine-tingling to think of what could happen if that mental block was suddenly removed. Fallon poured himself out into a notebook, scribbling new lyrics, writing new melodies…and what do you know – Handwritten is spine-tingling, indeed.
The reason The Gaslight Anthem was able to write the best record of its career-so-far, and the frontrunner for 2012’s album of the year, is probably more a result of The Horrible Crowes than most of us really know. “I was bored,” Fallon said. “After the last record for Gaslight Anthem, I was just bored. I still had the desire to write, but I didn’t want to write any more rock and roll songs. I was in this weird mood.” So he wrote Elsie with Ian Perkins, a darker, slower, brooding cauldron of an album that was nearly perfect – for what it was. Elsie somehow set off a switch, and returning with guitarist Alex Rosamilia, bassist Alex Levine and drummer Benny Horowitz enabled The Gaslight Anthem to write more freely than ever. Handwritten is just the latest record from this band that I’ll dub its best work – but it seems I do that every time they release something. It’s not my fault they keep besting themselves.
Handwritten is the The Gaslight Anthem’s most versatile work. It combines the raw rock and roll sound of The ’59 Sound with the best soulful parts from American Slang and Elsie. Fallon’s voice is absolutely in its best shape, as the croon we heard with The Horrible Crowes strongly complements his rougher vocal parts. Most interestingly, we find a lighthearted and jovial vibe to the album at times, harkening to the Senor and The Queen EP more than anything else. But Handwritten still brings something new to the table, and what else should we expect?
Lead single “45” is a torridly paced number, immediately snapping its fingers to bring you to attention. This is a wake-up, a call to action: You’re very clearly listening to a Gaslight Anthem record here, and they want you to know that from the first note. The guitar shreds in the bridge are dark and intense, but Fallon wastes no time giving us a chorus to shout out loud: “Hey, turn the record over / Hey, I'll see you on the flip side / There you go, turn the key and engine over / Let her go, let somebody else lay at her feet.” It’s an ideal opener and an ideal first single. But “45” has a sister track on the album, “Howl,” which we won’t get to until the middle of the track listing, but which is as interesting as any song the band has written. “Howl” is even faster and more aggressive than the album opener, and if you stop paying attention for a minute, you’ll miss it – literally. Only two minutes long, Fallon and Co. demonstrate with full force that they can still write a hell of a hook and have some fun. More than anything since “Say I Won’t (Recognize),” this track brings out the energy and exhilaration of a live Gaslight Anthem show. Fallon has more fun on stage than most anyone you’ve ever seen perform, and he sounds like he’s having an exceptionally good time throughout the entirety of “Howl.” It’s hard not to let go and sing along with the track (the chorus just goes “Aye, aye, ayeeeeeee, aye, yay!”), but as Fallon always does, he leaves a token to keep you on your toes: “Radio, oh radio, do you believe there's still some magic left somewhere inside our souls?”
As good as those two tracks are, the best part about them is that their high energy is not an exception to the rule. Handwritten is an uptempo record, something that shouldn’t be surprising to Gaslight fans, but something that listeners might not initially expect because of the styles of American Slang and Elsie. But is it a joy to just hear this band jam! Fallon, Rosamilia and Perkins throw a guitar clinic on Handwritten, and it’s in tracks like “Mulholland Drive” and “Too Much Blood” where we realize why Brenden O’Brien was a good choice not just for this album – but the man who should be behind the boards for probably this band’s entire career. “Too Much Blood” plays out at a slower tempo than most of the album, built around a punishing guitar riff – O’Brien produced plenty of riffs with Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine, and you can tell he knows a thing or two. The riff here dominates the song with just enough precision for the dreamy choruses and Fallon’s bluesy verses to still shine. In “Mulholland Drive,” one of the album’s greatest standouts, we get a ripping, wailing 35-second guitar solo…a piece of musicianship that is begging for Rosamilia to play it in front of thousands of people. The soloing comes back in the outro of the song and it’s one of those moments that few bands can provide – a moment where you take a step back and ask, “Shit, what am I listening to here?” It sounds silly to say because The Gaslight Anthem has a catalog of great songs, but this is the type of track that bands spend entire careers waiting to stumble upon.
The group’s influences are still abundant on the record – there’s some Bob Dylan in the harmonica on the rhythmic “Keepsake,” there’s some heavy Tom Petty on the phenomenal closer “National Anthem,” and some The Rising or Magic-era Bruce Springsteen on another highlight in “Here Comes My Man.” The latter of those three has a killer bassline and “ooh-sha-la-la” bits that would catch the attention of even the E Street Band’s backup vocalists. But we know better than to overplay the talk of influences at this point in Gaslight’s career – this is a group that has reinvented itself twice now, a group with much more than a modicum of pressure accompanying its major label debut, a group that can change faces with its versatility while remaining very much itself. We see this in “Desire,” a lusty song where Fallon draws us in with the chorus: “I would give anything for the touch of your skin / Yes, I would burn here for years / Up in desire, desire,” but still leaves us with a bigger picture to ponder on: “What makes a woman believe in a man such as me? / Unworthy to sit at your foot or your crown / I can only let you down.”
Handwritten comes full circle, in a way, on its title track. Although it comes at you early on, the second song in the sequence, it proves itself to be the song most accurately representing what this record is all about. Somewhere in between the fire of “45” and “Howl” and the mellow mood of “Mae” and “National Anthem,” the title track contains the singular best piece of music on the album. In fact, it’s the exact same feeling I got when I described the bridge of The Horrible Crowes’ “Black Betty and the Moon.” During the bridge of “Handwritten,” the band quiets down into a beautiful setting, with piercing piano strikes playing alongside Fallon’s humming background vocals, an instrument in their own right. He lays it on thick, too: “Here in the dark I cherish the moonlight / I’m in love with the way you’re in love with the night / And it travels from heart, to limb, to pen.” Then the group launches into a final chorus, the best one on the track, as Fallon croons, “We waited for sirens that never come / And we only write by the moon / Every word handwritten.”
Every word handwritten. A phrase that will mean a great many things to a great many different listeners, but then again, that’s always been a strength of Fallon’s. This record will mean something different to everyone.
It’s hard for a musician to realize that that was done already: You don’t need to write '59 Sound because you already did. Now you have to find something that’s equally as good, but different. Guys like Bruce Springsteen, and Neil Young, and Bob Dylan, they’ve done something great, and then done something great again that was different. But then you find guys that have not … they’re chasing something that they once were great at. I’m not sure whether we’re on the former or the latter. Our fate has not been told yet.
The ’59 Sound. American Slang. Handwritten. The Gaslight Anthem presents its case-so-far. As listeners, as fans of music, we’ve already hit the lottery here. Let’s evaluate: These three albums, plus Elsie, means that we’ve already gotten four of the best records of the last half-decade, all from one band. What this also means is that no matter what The Gaslight Anthem does in the future, they are already entrenched. These albums will last forever. These albums will accompany me throughout my adult life; wherever I go, I will take these with me. I don’t think this is a band that’s going to rest on its laurels or bask in the glow of its current success, so I’m sure that they’ll continue to improve – although it’s hard to better a masterpiece like this. The Gaslight Anthem is the best band of this generation.
Mark Knopfler, David Gilmour, Bob Dylan, Don Henley, Tom Sholz, Lindsey Buckingham, Neil Young, Mick Jagger, Roger Daltry, Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder. These are the musicians our mothers and fathers listened to when they were growing up, when they procrastinated throughout college, when they bought their first cars, when they danced their first dance at their weddings, when they played music for their young children to grow up on. It’s impossible to predict what path a band will take in the future, but those names are no longer untouchable. Nothing is untouchable for Fallon and The Gaslight Anthem. And I’m perfectly content knowing I have this band’s music during this point in my life, because you know what? The Gaslight Anthem holds its own in a discussion like this. Now I’m done talking about it – I’m going to shut up and keep on listening, because if we’re really lucky, we’re only listening to the middle of an all-time great rock and roll career here. While it’s tiresome to call each new Gaslight Anthem release the best Gaslight Anthem release, I’ll have to keep doing so as long as they keep putting out records like Handwritten.
You know, I've never actually given these guys a decent chance/listen. I'm gonna have to get on that!
Your reviews are always my favorite to read, Thomas. I can just feel you in every word you write, and you always have good things to share.
I don't need to read this, looking at the score is enough. I know this will be the best of the year and i really want to check it out. Maybe after I listened to Handwritten a few times I will check out what you wrote :)