New Jersey's The Gaslight Anthem is a good example of how a band can be pigeon-holed for the best and the worst reasons. Largely unknown, at least outside the US east coast, it took a high-profile association with Bruce Springsteen (Glastonbury 2009, John Peel stage) to capture people's attention, and also highlight the obvious and ever-present influence The Boss has on lead singer Brian Fallon. This came to an inevitable, and thankful, conclusion with previous album American Slang. While attempting to bring in other influences, the band fell deeper into the comparison and were in danger of becoming a tribute band, the product of The Gaslight Anthem trying to find themselves and much needed individuality. In their worst moments they were starting to sound like Reef with Fallon delivering regular (and very good) impressions of Gary Stringer. So the 2007 début Sink or Swim remains the band's most engaging and interesting album, capturing the dreams and emotions of a youthful quartet trying to make it. And now five years later, the fourth album Handwritten takes the experiences and the mistakes of the intervening years and moulds them into the album fans and critics have been waiting for.
Handwritten begins brilliantly with the blistering rock-pop of "45", the Gaslight Anthem version of Pearl Jam's Spin The Black Circle; a celebration and a metaphor for life. It's a the best of starts both musically and in message. Fallon is himself, exposed and honest, filled with energy and passion as he combines with guitarist Alex Rosamilia to create a torrent of sound. This pace is taken into the title track to create a wonderful example of melodic soft rock with a cracking chorus. Fallon echoes Peter Gabriel at his mighty best in the second half and the vocals in the last minute bring the song to a tremendous and satisfying close.
It is not until Keepsake that this early promise is built upon. Here Comes My Man suffers from a mishmash of ideas and a horribly slow and inane chorus, attempting to pick up in the second half, thanks to a consistent pace and a great Heartbreakers finale, but never quite getting there. Likewise Mulholland Drive has a cramped and uncomfortable chorus, and in spite of a well-meaning sentiment and a superb guitar solo, it never translates into a great "working class man" love song. Again the ending tries to pull it all together and almost succeeds. In light of this, Keepsake is real progression and the first of two darker heavier moments. Fallon's vocal is perfectly gritty and coupled with sharp guitars, dense percussion and a subtle arrangement, this takes us back to the song writing of Sink Or Swim and the true nature of the band. In contrast Too Much Blood threatens to delve back to the faults of American Slang but instead twists the song into something brilliant - grinding guitar work, big Stringer-esque vocals, that stay the right side of acceptable, and a truly great performance from Fallon. At over five minutes the song never outstays it's welcome and another big (yet short) solo introduces a spirited last minute.
From here the punchy Howl adds some light pop-rock. The late 'talky' vocals are a neat addition to add something new. Biloxi Parish sounds like an out-take from second album The '59 Sound - in a good way. Not quite the big stadium-pleaser but bright and open-hearted. Lyrically this is superb with "When you pass through from this world I hope you ask to take me with you... so that I won't have to wait too long" then "Who else can say that about you baby... who else can take all your blood and your curses? Nobody I've seen you hanging around". Fallon keeps things uncluttered and straight-forward.
Into the final trio and the big sing-along Desire is a false dawn (or dusk). Another self-depreciating love song ("I can only let you down" sings Fallon) driven along with more spiralling guitars, empty vocals and thumping drums. This is one that might lift better during a live set. But it's the wonderful Mae that brings one of two late highlights. With a fantastic vocal arrangement and uplifting guitars, this is The Gaslight Anthem coming of age and finally getting it together. "We work our fingers down to dust, and wait for kingdom come...with the radio on..." is another great line. To accompany this, closer National Anthem is arguably the best song on the album, an uncomplicated ballad unlike anything else. Fallon delivers more great song writing: "Now she just screams that I promised her more than this. Take it easy baby it ain't over yet" is tear-stained brilliance. Controlled and effective; a perfect way to end an album that promises hope and accomplishment for the future.
Handwritten is the sound of band updating and enhancing their sound while retaining much of what got them here in the first place. Keeping things raw and earthy while adding polish and slick production. This is a good balance thanks mainly to the involvement of Brendan O'Brien - like many great producers he finds the band's soul and makes it sound new and unique. But this is more than just right place and right time. The Gaslight Anthem have remembered who they are and where they want to be - this is the essence of Handwritten.
-CS (for JC)