In a promo video for the Gaslight Anthem’s new album, Handwritten, lead singer/songwriter Brian Fallon discusses the concept behind and genesis of the LP before offhandedly remarking that every band dreams of making that “one album”. That insatiable desire to make that perfect piece of popular culture that will endure for decades is what fueled Fallon and his bandmates during the writing and recording of Handwritten, particularly when he wasn’t sure if there were any more songs within him — let alone a masterpiece. Once the band wrote album opener “45”, Fallon explains, the doubt was banished and the Gaslight Anthem rekindled their creative hunger.
That’s an inspirational story, for sure, but Fallon has to be naïve or in denial to overlook one huge fact: the Gaslight Anthem already made that “one album” back in 2008: The ’59 Sound. Yep, that album is one of those albums, as perfect from start to finish as Loveless, The Soft Bulletin, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, or any other album that is the sound of the creative stars aligning. Combining punk rock grit with classic rock smarts, The ’59 Sound is obscenely catchy, a recognizable classic from the first listen that proves that one doesn’t have to choose between the Clash and Tom Petty.
But making an undeniable classic on your sophomore outing is both a blessing and a curse. Instantly becoming the saviors of rock ‘n’ roll for every music fan who laments the direction of modern pop music must be thrilling, but also a damn heavy load to carry around. How do you follow that up? Artistically, where do you go on your next album? What if you disappoint? Those were all questions, no doubt, that Fallon and his bandmates had to wrestle with while writing and recording their next album, 2010’s American Slang. And wrestle they did; while American Slang was a satisfying set of songs, it sounded a bit scattershot, like the band was trying to pay homage to too much to accomplish a focused statement.
This all makes Handwritten a critical moment in the Gaslight Anthem’s career. Fallon’s admission that he wasn’t sure he had another song in him is essentially a confession that he doubted where, if anywhere, the band should (or even could) go. So, in a way, Handwritten is a make-or-break moment, an album has the potential to push the Gaslight Anthem into the rubble of the musical mainstream or relegate them to the homepage of NPR’s music section, respected but largely neglected.
Ultimately, Fallon and company play it safe, subtly expanding their sound, but not doing much more than they set out to accomplish on American Slang. As on that album, they inch away from their neo-punk roots to embrace a more classic rock sound. There’s less snarl and more howl. Fewer power chords and more guitar riffs. There’s even some Byrds-inspired guitar in “Here Comes My Man”. Is that an homage within an homage? The Gaslight Anthem, after all, are huge Petty fans and Petty is a huge Byrds fan and “Here Comes My Man” sounds like a lyrical nod to “Here Comes My Girl”. Oh, this is all starting to become a bit overwhelming to untangle.
And yet there are differences, signs of artistic growth. Lyrically, Fallon has turned has emphasis inward. Rather than his normal cast of American archetypes in “Springsteenian” situations, Fallon focuses on his own thoughts and feelings, which is where the loose concept undergirding the album comes into play. The act of writing lyrics by hand -– as Fallon did during the creation of the album –- is a metaphor for getting closer to the truth, eliminating any unnecessary step in the creative process that might obscure meaning. “It travels from heart to limb to pen,” Fallon sings on the title track, underscoring his desire to share his feelings rather than merely tell stories.
This is a rather bold move, as Fallon certainly knows how to deploy archetypes in compelling fashion, but it’s also understandable. Growing older involves reflection, and Fallon would be remiss if he didn’t capture those reflections in song. Sure, there are the standard Gaslight Anthem tropes –- the river that demarcates the boundary between the stiflingly familiar and the potentially dangerous; the car that can take one away from fading dreams and into freedom; moonlights that rise into the sky, only to slowly fade away like one’s youth -– but Fallon uses them to tell personal tales, not American folktales. “Mulholland Drive”, for example, has it all -– cars, streets, summer nights –- but is essentially a tale of lost love and the ensuing lament.
The other noticeable difference is the production. For this album, the Gaslight Anthem decided to work with producer Brendan O’Brien. Since O’Brien has produced several of the band’s heroes –- notably Springsteen and Pearl Jam -– this seems like a very logical, perhaps even safe, choice. But what at first seems like a no-brainer isn’t always a natural fit. O’Brien makes a band sound thick, bringing heft to an album by making everything sound big -– the drums, the guitars, and the vocals. This fits both Springsteen’s bombastic Americana and Pearl Jam’s sludgy meld of punk and metal. Here, though, the production is the equivalent of a pair of lead shoes, causing the album to sometimes drag during the last half. The last thing a band needs is a heavy sound on top of an already-lethargic song.
Ultimately, though, the production only highlights some of Handwritten‘s shortcomings, namely that the Gaslight Anthem sometimes sound constrained by their influences rather than inspired by them. Both “Too Much Blood” and “Biloxi Parish”, for example, plod along, suffocating under the weight of their ’70s rock ambitions, sounding more like Lions-era Black Crowes than songs written by the snappy and nimble band that wrote “We Came to Dance” from Sink or Swim. In going from name (or lyric) checking their favorite bands to trying to actually sound like them, the Gaslight Anthem might have blurred the crucial line between inspiration and identity.
None of this is to say that Handwritten isn’t an often enjoyable, occasionally brilliant album, cause it assuredly is that. But it’s revealing that the album’s best moments are those in which the Gaslight Anthem incorporate their influences rather than emulate them. “45”, “Here Comes My Man”, “Mae” — these are classic Gaslight Anthem moments, moments where they sound like a cocksure band with impeccable taste rather than a band setting artificial and unnecessary bars for itself to jump over to prove… what? Yeah, yeah, yeah…they’re growing up, they’re maturing as people and as a band, and they’re trying to avoid being pigeonholed by their influences. Doing all of that and writing confident tracks is not an either/or scenario.
So the question lingers: is Handwritten the sound of the Gaslight Anthem naturally evolving or forcefully running away from their past? For those who listen to the album and like what they hear, the answer is irrelevant. But for those who get the nagging feeling that while the album is pretty damn good, some key ingredient just seems like it’s missing, that’s a very pertinent question. Will the Gaslight Anthem circa 2014 still be trying to force that “one album” out of their guts, or will they realize they’ve already written one and there’s absolutely no reason that they can’t write another?
“I can’t move on and I can’t stay the same,” Fallon sings in “45”. That may be the most truthful revelation to be found in all of Handwritten.