ALBUM: Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten
If you’ve heard “45” on WBRU anytime recently, you would assume that The Gaslight Anthem is a band that’s going to take you places. The album’s lead single, which also happens to be the lead track off of their most recent album Handwritten, kicks things off at a blistering pace with driving determination. But the places that “45” takes you are by no means the places that the band’s fourth album takes you. As soon as the track ends, it seems that they give into their friends’ appeals and “turn the record over”. Yet one can find similarities between the lead standout number and the album as a whole on more than one level. Just as “45” is not a first listen track, Handwritten is not a first listen album. Yet at the same time, both keep the listener interested, sometimes through surprise as the lead single does, and other times by fulfilling expectation.
I can’t move on and I can’t stay the same.
Without taking into account what GA sounded like on their first 3 LPs, I didn’t have to stretch too far in my mind to come up with artistic similarities. Notes and sentiments of their fellow statesman Springsteen, as well as Seger, Mellencamp, and Petty are all combined, mashed, and then modernized. Certain tracks – “Here Comes My Man”, “Desire”, the title track – would fit perfect on a golden-age Jimmy Eat World album, to the extent that lead man Brian Fallon’s characteristic waver/scream/growl seems to mimic the shaky shutter of Jim Adkins, front man of Jimmy Eat World, on their track “Bleed American”. The “woahs” at the beginning help to foster that connection as well. Though their sound draws from many sources and their inspirations clear, The Gaslight Anthem amalgamate all of these to create the genre of Heartland Punk.
A third of the way through, Handwritten exchanges its speed and tenacity for raw emotion and slow power. At this point the LP verges on being classified as country pop rock. “Mulholland Drive” and “Keepsake” being prime examples of a track that lies somewhere between the Ataris and Jason Aldean.
Both the notes and the thoughts are stretched out, the most notable shift coming in the parts of lead guitarist Alex Rosamilla. The attacking pierces that are so present and perfect in “45” are exchanged for sustained, wailing tones, which are equally as appropriate given their context.
Ironically, the unsung hero in the entire album comes not in the form of Rosamilla’s lead guitar work or Levine’s thudding bass lines, but in their backing vocals. In no review that I’ve read of the album have these even been mentioned, but the layer that these vocals add onto tracks in which they are present provides perfect support for Fallon’s growl and embellishes the overall sound marvelously.
Smack dab in the middle of the album, “Too Much Blood” is the most old-school slow track on the album, with a heavily repeated chorus and fade out (the only track on the album to have one) to boot. Without warning, things pick right up again with “Howl’. In addition to its high energy, at 2:04 “Howl” is the shortest track on the album, a feeling which is emphasized by the fact that the previous track was more than double the length.
Not only is the track a welcome cathartic moment, but is impressive because of its transition; although the tempo is the most upbeat since “45” and the genre reverts back to pop rock, the shift seemed natural and came at the perfect time.
When the first notes of “National Anthem” reached my ears, I couldn’t help but chuckle. See, Handwritten follows one of the stereotypical album formulas, specifically the album layout that goes a little like this: a quick intro song kicks off the album, serving as the sonic equivalent to a the literary hook at the beginning of a novel, followed by songs that gradually slow down from one to the next until you get to a slow crooner jam/ballad, which is then followed by an exciting explosive track, which leads back into tracks that are slower in tempo (but not quite as slow because they come after the climax), that then conclude in a ballad that is usually stripped down to some extent. Notable examples of this include almost every Coldplay album, especially X&Y, as well as Green Day’s American Idiot (though Whastername picks up by the end).
Now, given all that, the closing track was everything you would expect from the final cut of an alternative album: an acoustic solo ballad from the lead man, and “National Anthem” has melancholy strings to boot. But as I said before, Gaslight Anthem has the gift of timing and their use of the rock blueprint works to their advantage, at least most of the time. While words such as formulaic can be used, certain words that come up as synonyms in your average thesaurus wouldn’t fit (See uninspired, cookie-cutter, etc.).
Though they possess temporal aptitude in terms of figuring out what comes next, there seems to be a slight disconnect in terms of perceived time. When I first heard the album I was on a train to Boston that usually clocks in at a little over an hour. By the time I reached the final chord on “National Anthem”, I expected to be getting off at South Station, only to find myself a bit bewildered when I realized we were only a bit past halfway. The album has a running time of just 37 minutes that easily seems twice as long, but I’m not sure yet if this is a good thing or a bad thing. One thing is for certain though: it’s the uptempo tracks such as “45” and “Howl” that carry the album. Without them, some of the slower pieces would drag more, and perhaps seem overly long to the point of being laborious.
Handwritten truly sounds more like the “sound of ‘59” than 2008’s The Sound of ’59 does. Its is an album surely The Gaslight Anthem can call their own, moreso than any other they have released. Not only do they draw from others, but they draw from themselves here, all the while moving forward and perfecting their sound.
A theme of aging traces through the album both lyrically and sonically.
While Gaslight doesn’t exactly break any new ground with Handwritten, that doesn’t seem to matter to them and they make damn sure it doesn’t matter to us. The strength of the album comes from the fact that sound right at home and flourish in their alt-garage-country-rock glory. They don’t care that they’re modernizing the wheel and neither should you. With their fourth full-length, The Gaslight Anthem have become a New Jersey success story indeed. Jimmy Eat World would be proud.