PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Music

The Gaslight Anthem: Handwritten

“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.


The Gaslight Anthem

Handwritten

Label: Mercury
US Release Date: 2012-07-24
UK Release Date: 2012-07-23
Amazon
iTunes

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.

6

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.