By R. David
Published June, 20th 2012
For me, stumbling upon The Gaslight Anthem was a happy accident. I suppose, had someone told me they were a group I just had to hear and sung their endless praises, I would have been underwhelmed. After all, the wrap on them by their detractors is generally something along the lines of ‘Springsteen knock-offs meet The Clash’. For any devout Springsteen fans such as myself, it is immediately clear these fellow Jersey boys – specifically front man and main lyricist Brian Fallon – owe a large debt to the songwriting stylings of their home state’s rock royalty. If someone were to tell me they just discovered this great new band, specifically citing their lyrics, I likely would have charged them with backing their U-Haul up to Springsteen’s door and taking everything not tied down, and I probably would have immediately tuned out.
But as it happens, I came across The Gaslight Anthem at a time when I was starved for new music and the very thing I was looking for was a new band that could somehow bridge the generational gap between The Boss I loved and a fresh, new sound. They needn’t reinvent the wheel. After all, Springsteen is still a vital recording and touring force (and better at both than any artist half his age). I didn’t need a band to fill a gap left by him, but to reassure me that all was not lost in modern rock and roll; that there are new musicians out there who care about the same sort of songwriting themes that I do, no matter how unfashionable they may be at the moment in current pop music.
That The Gaslight Anthem are bold enough to wear their influences on their sleeves – name dropping specific artists or referencing song titles and full sets of lyrics in their songs, and throwing in the occasional cover at their live shows or as album bonus tracks – makes them all the more endearing.
I caught up with the band about a year after their 2008 breakthrough, The 59 Sound; a big, raucous, tough, and yet surprisingly warm and inviting slice of pop-punk. It was the sort of energized and compellingly vital sound I was looking for; bolstered by heartfelt, if at times overly sentimental, lyrics. Songs like the title cut, “Here’s Looking At You Kid” and “Backseat” (still their absolute best track,to these ears) are still, 3 years later, in constant rotation on my stereo. Their new album, Handwritten, despite some buzz about them branching out, doesn’t really push the band in any significantly new directions. As on their last effort, 2010’s underrated American Slang, Gaslight continues to expand their canvas with a handful of arrangements that are more ambitious than their typical garage rock sound, but ultimately the more flourishes they add, the less impactful their songs are. It’s a nice breath of fresh air to have a track here and there that goes in a different direction, but it would be a mistake for them to attempt an entire album of glossy studio productions. Thankfully they seem to realize that much and Handwritten doesn’t venture too far outside of their comfort zone. Like all of their albums, there are a few rote moments, clumsy lyrics and attempts to bite off more than they can chew; but mostly it’s The Gaslight Anthem fans know and love.
Things get off to a invigorated start with lead single “45″, in which Fallon likens the game of love to a record spinning (“The song just keeps on repeating, drop the needle again.”). With “45” Fallon sets the tone of the record which, like the Gaslight’s other albums, is romantic intensity interspersed with moments of muted lament. On the album’s best tracks, Fallon is able to combine the two. “45”, “Here Comes My Man”, “Mulholland Drive” and “Keepsake” are all big, dramatic, beat-your-fits-against-the-wall tales of regret. And it’s at songs like these the band excels most. “Here Comes My Man” downshifts with some melodic “sha-la-la’s” in the chorus, making it perhaps the most obviously radio-friendly track on the album, but the emotion simply cannot be contained as the verses ramp back up to the sort of driving guitar rock the band apparently can’t suppress even when they try (nor should they); except when they strip things down completely, as on the mournful ballads “Mae” and “National Anthem”. Even here though, while the tempos may change, the themes do not: Its’ all romantic young boys in jeans and t-shirts against the world. “While the city pumps its aching heart for one more drop of blood, we work our fingers down to dust and we wait for kingdom come,” Fallon sings on “Mae”. What’s his refuge? Why, a girl with “Bette Davis eyes”, of course. This would all come off incredibly clichéd at least – and unbearably mawkish at worst – if the songs weren’t so sincerely and accessibly written and sung with such conviction. “I want to see you tonight. Can we go for a drive? You can lean into me… If you ain’t been in love for a while.” If there is listener who can’t relate to lines like these I almost feel badly for them. Fallon creates a scene for the listener with the best of them. “I still remember holding you, just out of sight of her. In the deep, dark parking lot pressed up against my car, with your hands around my neck I felt the pounding of your heart,” he reminisces on “Mulholland Drive”.
None of this is to say that Gaslight it is immune to occasional lyrical missteps. Just as Fallon can be counted on for accurately capturing the longing of hopeless romantic, he is often guilty of reveling in clichés and Hallmark-esque pap. Claims that “I’d just die if you ever took your love away,” and “I’m in love with the way you’re in love with the night, and it travels from heart to limb to pen,” run rampant. Sometimes Fallon’s intense delivery can salvage an awkward line, sometimes not. The worst offender is the title track, which has more goofy lyrics in one song than perhaps the rest of the album as a whole. But more often than not, the band emerges unscathed from these moments. It helps that Handwritten also includes a couple unpretentious, straightforward rockers. “Howl”and “Biloxi Parish” hit hard and fast and are less about regret and romance than defiance and escape; essentially a return to the Springsteen model, but with their punk roots, as always, firmly in check.
Handwritten is a solid album by a solid band. It’s not as tight and doesn’t grab you the way The 59 Sound does, but it’s a nice compliment to American Slang. The Gaslight Anthem still seems to be finding a way to breakthrough and perfect their sound and exactly what kind of band they want to be and where they fit in. Whether or not they ever find their niche or take the world by storm, there are far worse things than being a tight unit with a refreshing old school rock sound and lyrics that immediately transport the listener back to a specific time, place and relationship. B+
Key Tracks: 45, Here Comes My Man, Mulholland Drive, Keepsake, Howl, Biloxi Parish, Mae.