The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten (Album Review)

August 8, 2012

Who better than Nick Hornby to write the liner notes of  the newest album by The Gaslight Anthem? His love of  rock and roll comes through in all of his excellent novels (High Fidelity, About a Boy) and of course in his occasional  forays into rock journalism (i.e., Songbook).  In his notes he writes that with a Gaslight record, “there’s an assumption you’ll have heard something like this before–on the first Clash album, or on Born to Run, or the first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album, or maybe on a Little Richard record.” For Hornby, and for me as well, the fact that lead singer Brian Fallon and his brothers-in-arm so proudly wear their influences (and their hearts) on their sleeves is by no means a knock against them but rather a selling point.  Over the course of four albums, an EP, and several singles, The Gaslight Anthem have produced some of the purest, most emotional, hookiest, and simply funnest rock and roll made in a decade or more.  Before each album there’s a murmur in the rock press that this time things will come at us from a new direction; before their last album, American Slang, we heard that their Springsteen infatuation would give way to the Clash and a more British set of influences. Before this record, we heard that the guys had purged their most overt tributes and would simply give us them as they are, standing in no one else’s shadow. Well, each time the band has given us Gaslight Anthem and each time that has been more than enough. But as Hornby observes, there’s no way you can say this sort of thing has never been done before. And really, why bother? Pure, passionate rock and roll all owes the chords of Chuck Berry, the ghost of Elvis, the energy of Little Richard, and the emotion of Bruce Springsteen a huge debt and with Handwritten Brian Fallon, Alex Levine, Benny Horowitz, and Alex Rosamilia try their best to repay it. They stand in the line of greats and they give it their all.  For this they’ve earned their share of praise and a few murmurs of discontent and criticism. While “Alternative Press” glowed, “Pitchfork” remained lukewarm; “Rolling Stone” got downright bipolar, granting them a solid review in one issue, and in the very next placing their latest single on their “Hit List” right before accusing them of aiming for Springsteen and delivering Bon Jovi on the very next page. Which to be fair, can sometimes be arguable. As that particular article noted, most artists who try to be “Sprinsteeneque” end up misfiring from “Thunder Road” and ending up “at the mall,” which they claim can still be a lot of fun. Cheese always has its place in rock, and a group like Bon Jovi balanced it rather well for their first decade or so. Yet what stands Fallon out and rises him above a band like, say, the Killers and their song-crafter Brandon Flowers, is the utter sincerity he pours into his lyrics and the vocal delivery of them. Fallon isn’t scared to let you hear his voice crack when reaching for  an old-school R&B rock and roll note just out of his reach. Nor is he scared to write lyrics about driving his love around “till the mist of the morning,” or appropriating Van Morrison for a female POV song like “Here Comes My Man.”

One of Pitchfork’s criticisms was that, while capable of sonic emotive glory in some capacities, Fallon can come off a bit like a “punk rock curmudgeon,” in his embrace of all things “older” and implicit rejection of the i-pod generation of music.  With its espousal of singles on “45”s and as a metaphor for life and relationships or for makin his notes “handwritten,” Fallon presents Gaslight as a vehicle for delivering rock and roll nostalgia. Handwritten is a sonic vacation to rock and roll’s timeless golden age of midnight drives in cool cars, stolen kisses in parking lots, lyrics full of earnest passion that are unafraid and unperturbed by a snide cynical blogosphere. Yet this album is not “dated.” It’s obvious it works this well best in its current time and place–as a reminder to those who love rock and roll why they love rock and roll. It serves as an updated hymn in the canon of rock and roll excellence and in the chorus of “Muholland Drive” and it’s catchy breakdowns, in the epic vocals of “Desire,” in that Edge-like curving guitar hook of “Mae” which anchors lyrics about being born by a raging river and experiencing a “salty Carnival kiss,” you catch glimpses of the absolutely real Gospel of Rock. There is a brave embrace of self and love, a celebration of romance, possibility, and hope as well as reflection, heartache and regret that runs from beginning to end for a bit over 40 minutes here on Handwritten. It’s the soundtrack of “waiting for Kingdom Come with the radio on,” as Fallon sings near the end of the whole affair.  You either embrace it with the same sincerity and unapologetic love as the guys who crafted it or you just don’t get it and it wasn’t for you anyway.

Rating: 9/10


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