Handwritten, the fourth record from The Gaslight Anthem, the New Jersey concern fronted by songwriter Brian Fallon, opens and closes in good form. It’s what’s in between that creates a huge problem. Long on the influence of certain archetypes, it’s regrettably short on songs that transcend them.
Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Joe Strummer, Kurt Cobain; something all these mythic figures share is the status awarded them by legions of fans as being worthy of the honorific “real.” Some are heavy in the quality known as roots, other excel at offering up large doses of what’s often called sincerity, and all are lacking in pretention, instead possessing an abundance of the authentic.
Since its very beginnings, rock music has had a constantly shifting relationship to the concept of the real. Before the big mid-‘60’s shift (Sgt. Pepper, Dylan, Pet Sounds and the rumblings from the LA and San Fran scenes) that resulted in the form gaining real cultural capital, there was no significant friction with a band hailing from a land-locked heartland state and playing surf music, or in stepping onto stage wearing thematic, borderline ridiculous costumes. In fact, if you named your band the Pirates then it made total sense to dress up like practitioners of nautical thievery.
That ‘60’s sea change toward the serious continues to influence music to this very day. David Bowie’s enshrinement in the pantheon aside, there is a sizable contingent that gets nervous over any open desire by a musician or band to engage with the artificial or to adopt a persona. For instance, many still debate the worth of glam rock, and the tendency for theatricality is often seen as suspect, even though it encompasses names as disparate as The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Alice Cooper, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Kiss, Parliament, The Residents, Gwar and even non-rock fellow travelers like Sun Ra’s Arkestra.
The collective unease with this side of the rock spectrum can be oversimplified as an anxiety over pretention, the distaste that often arises when performers indulge in being something they are not. And it’s by no means just a subset of fans that cultivate this attitude; it’s very much intertwined with the critical establishment and with the industry that promotes the music and solidifies its lore. For instance, on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums, the token punk entry in the Top Ten goes to London Calling.
A truly predictable and somewhat annoying result, for The Clash serves valiantly as the tiptop punk band for countless aging hippies, mainly because they functioned the way a “real” band should, i.e. not like a bunch of barely-talented cretins dressing up in obnoxious clothing. And many late ‘70s punk-friendly critics adored The Clash beyond all reason (Bangs, I’m lookin’ squarely at you) because they had the Whole Enchilada; stripped down yet smart about it, pissed-off but respectful where it counted, but most of all dues-paying and suitably authentic. They were, in a phrase, the key factor in the Springsteenization of punk rock.
Springsteen; he’s the commercially viable spiritual cousin to The Ramones, and also one of the go-to artists for certain aging punkers that are searching for a soundtrack for middle-age, where he comfortably sits with the list of artists that begin this review. Springsteen, who with Strummer and The Replacements, forms a triumvirate that helps inform the work of Brian Fallon and The Gaslight Anthem.
The band’s new record Handwritten finds them further distilling those influences into what can now be safely described as their own sound, a hard-bitten anthemic fist-pumping experience that’s consistently gathered fan support over the course of four albums, the latest hitting the racks under the auspices of major label Mercury. But if assuredly the work of The Gaslight Anthem, the music remains quite open regarding that which helped shape it, a fact unsurprising in their avenue of punk maturation.
To this ear, the biggest influence remains Springsteen, a case of one Jersey guy rubbing off on another. While there are definite musical similarities, ultimately the connection doesn’t manifest itself sonically but rather in execution, specifically in the “cinematic” quality both songwriter’s share. More than simply storytellers, they both excel at creating music that feels intrinsically tied to the power of moving images; they don’t really present beginnings, middles, and ends in the dominant manner of filmic narrative construction, but particularly in Fallon’s case they instead register like crucial accompaniment, soundtracking moments and imagery of great emotional import.
The big problem with Handwritten is that for all its sincerity and authenticity, the results are too often ham-fisted and overwrought in delivery. To extend the cinematic motif, the title track aims directly for the kind of cathartic gush that often swells up on the fade out and continues as the credits roll on, most shuffling out the door but a few lingering in their seats not to see their friend’s name on screen but because that ending and that music has hit them right in the gut. Except this is track number two and more importantly, it sounds far too obvious or perhaps far too insistent.
This is unfortunate, for the record’s first song is easily the best opening cut in The Gaslight Anthem’s quartet of full-lengths. “45” is certainly deep with the tangible earnestness that’s a constant element in the band’s music, but the tune is just as much about forward momentum, smartly calibrated to be Handwritten’s initial salvo.
Not that palpable earnestness is an inevitable fault. Far from it in fact, for it’s been a part of Ted Leo’s music across the admirable span of his work solo and with the Pharmacists. But where Leo’s music excels, Fallon and the Anthem’s struggles and often stagnates, and it seems to come down to a higher standard of songwriting that draws upon a wider set of inspirations. The astuteness of his lyrics aside, Leo isn’t a notably original writer; his big advance was in taking a whopping chunk of early-Billy Bragg and then adding hints of Thin Lizzy, The Specials, Brit anarcho-punk, inspired cover choices and yes, Strummer and Springsteen.
By contrast, the Anthem does possess their own sound but they very rarely reach beyond that triangle of The Boss, The Clash, and The Placemats in shaping it. For instance, “Here Comes My Man” feels like a knockoff of a Springsteen knockoff, the refrain of its chorus both forced and stale, though it’ll clearly go down a storm in the live setting.
And “Mulholland Drive” nearly OD’s on that cinematic aspect, from the brazen yarn-spinning of its lyrics to the great big credits sequence surge of its instrumental close to the possible film reference of its title. And at first David Lynch seemed an unlikely candidate for appreciation or more specifically loose homage from a no-nonsense guy like Fallon; he seems more like an Altman or early Scorsese fan to me. And the connection still feels like a stretch, but a song like “Mulholland Drive,” very much like Lynch’s films, is an All-In proposition.
To elaborate, at this point the Gaslight Anthem isn’t the kind of band that inspires listeners to say “they’re okay.” As their fanbase has grown, so has the boldness of the music, with Handwritten increasing the likelihood that people will either go nuts about them or avoid them entirely. This differs from the loud but in retrospect understated and somewhat samey songs of the ’07 debut Sink or Swim, a record that while surely thick with that grown-up ex-punk realness could also successfully function as some no big deal driving music.
Diversity doesn’t always bring great rewards. To wit; “Keepsake” bogs the end of Handwritten’s first side down with a slow tempo, and “Too Much Blood” opens side two in a similar mode. To be blunt, The Gaslight Anthem work best in speedier contexts, where for one thing Fallon’s vocals avoid heading into Cocker-esque histrionics, an indulgence that poses an even bigger problem for “Too Much Blood” than its plodding structure. “Howl” picks up the pace in a shout-along and hug-your-best-bro manner not dissimilar to that offered by Dropkick Murphys, and thankfully the Anthem don’t overextend the moment, the track done in just a shade more than two minutes.
From there “Biloxi Parish,” ”Desire,” and “Mae” reveal a strategy of slowing it down then speeding it back up then slowing it down again but this time making it slightly more meditative, the practice proving these guys are basically one big hit away from headlining the large stadiums. Good for them I say, but sadly The Gaslight Anthem’s Handwritten lacks the ingenuity and spark needed for this listener to buy a ticket. And if just half of the album was up to the quality of its acoustic closer “National Anthem,” that’s a position I’d have a much harder time taking.
GRADED ON A CURVE: