Depending on your perspective, The Gaslight Anthem are either a Bruce Springsteen cover band or one of the more exciting mainstream bands still producing music. On their fourth album, the New Jersey punks have found themselves in a curious position: whilst they have continued to grow in popularity, the critical acclaim that moved them into the public’s general awareness, has dissipated since their second album. Admittedly this may have been because The ’59 Sound is generally regarded as not just a great Gaslight Anthem album but one of the best rock records released in the past decade. It was a tough act to follow and when they tried with American Slang it was clear that they had failed to match the benchmark they had set for themselves. In truth, when their lead singer and lyricist claimed that he may have been unable to write another Gaslight Anthem song, there was a sense that maybe it would not have been the worst thing in the world.
But two years on, the boys have returned to the fray once again, and even though they appear to have been unable to reach their full potential again, it is obvious from the start that Handwritten is clearly a better effort than American Slang. One factor that has clearly contributed is Fallon’s side-project The Horrible Crowes, whose almost excellent debut album was a conduit for him to exorcise a few of the darker demons that plagued American Slang. Whilst Handwritten retains a darkness, and obtains a sense of the curmudgeon, it displays the fact that the band have regained their ability to produce the anthemic, heartland-friendly songs that made them so relatable before.
Evidence of this is in opening track, and first single, “45,” which fits happily with the best of their material—buoyant, intelligent, and including a simple and catchy chorus that really lingers in the mind. Similar to this is “Howl,” which seems designed solely to get people dancing—I suspect it could be a live favourite in the future—the levity here is a welcome change as excluding “Boxer,” American Slang was distinctly lacking in the earworm songs that encouraged the listener to keep revisiting it.
Title song “Handwritten” attempts to re-evoke that admiration of the antiquated Americana that made The ’59 Sound, yet instead it comes across as Fallon bemoaning how out of touch with modern society it is. The feeling you get is not the warmth of nostalgia but an unpleasant sense that if he could, Fallon would stop using electricity to make music and that listening to this album on CD or on your iPod is almost perversely wrong.
Yet for that criticism, the album is more heartfelt and earnest than its predecessor and there is a conscious effort to appeal to both fans old and new. Closer “National Anthem” is a beautifully structured rumination on America and “Here Comes My Man,” with its Van Morrison-esque “Oh-Sha-La-La’s,” improves on American Slang’s comparable material.
Handwritten is not the best that the Gaslight Anthem have to offer but they seem to be moving in the right direction again. Allowing the Horrible Crowes to pick up the slack, the band has moved back towards the one we so easily identified with. It may be a while before they release another album that reaches their high watermark, but at least until then, you’ll always have The ’59 Sound .
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