The Large Hadron Collider is the world’s largest particle accelerator. Lying hundreds of feet under the earth near the Franco-Swiss border, its experiments have answered inconceivably intricate questions about physics and the universe. It is almost 17 miles long, can sling ridiculously tiny things around at the speed of light, and has recently made enormous strides towards confirming the existence of the elusive Higgs boson particle. For all its amazing capabilities though, it cannot smash rock bands together.
If it could, and if your warped experiment demanded the violent combo-smash of Bruce Springsteen and Against Me!, you might end up with New Jersey quartet The Gaslight Anthem. Equal parts <blue collar heartland rockers> and <angsty punk quartet with a lead singer whose voice sounds like it has had multiple encounters with cigarettes and cheese graters>, Gaslight has only been on the scene in the neighborhood of five years; but for all the vintage Americana imagery the band peddles, it’s easy to mistake them for industry veterans (see previous song titles “The ’59 Sound,” “Blue Jeans & White T-Shirts,” “Old White Lincoln,” et cetera ad Americanauseum). Thankfully though, the timelessness of the band’s sound legitimizes its image as more than a cheap gimmick, and the maxed-out passion with which it delivers punches is laudable.
It’s interesting to listen to the band’s latest, Handwritten, in light of some of the comments made by lead singer Brian Fallon a few months prior to its release:
“For the first time, I’m not scared that people aren’t going to like this record… If you want to hang with us, you’ve got to grow with us. That’s the deal.”
With this in mind: Handwritten is by far The Gaslight Anthem’s strongest, most cohesive album to date.
The sound delivered by Gaslight on Handwritten is, in a few words, rich, passionate, and aggressive. In an alternate universe I might try to pull off a bad Christian Grey joke here, but using some shoddy wordplay to compare Handwritten to shades of grey would be an unthinkable travesty. Instead, the reminiscent pining of Gaslight’s reverb-laden dual guitar attack and Fallon’s singing paint Handwritten with massively rich hues: deep blues of wave-like walls of sound, dark crimsons of relational anguish spilled onto lyric sheets, and bright greens of youthful energy.
In the melodic and lyrical vibrancy of Handwritten lie the triumphs and pangs that define the great American romance. It’s full of wounds and scars, and its songs have the eerie capacity to unearth emotions and corresponding memories that have been buried for a long time. As I listen, I am taken back to the first time I broke an arm, or that time I got dumped in high school. I’m five again in a pickup truck that is losing control and flying off the highway, or I’m a college junior who is suddenly very alone for months in a country that suddenly seems very foreign. It’s an incredibly transportational album, which is perhaps why it makes for such good driving music.
Although Handwritten has a tone that is decidedly sentimental and lyrics that are wholly vulnerable, it gets major points for never wallowing in lethargic self-pity. Make no mistake: this is a confident, straightforward rock and roll album at its very heart. Lead single “45” is “American Slang” all grown up, and “Here Comes My Man” is the strongest Sprinsteen resembler of the bunch. The “sha-la-las” of the latter turn into the “hey-ey-eys” of “Howl,” which packs a lot of energy and evocative soundbites like “does anything still move you since you’re educated now?” into just over two minutes.
“There’s nothing like another soul that’s been cut up the same,” Fallon cries in the title track “Handwritten,” whose lead riff etches a sentimental aural path that seems all too familiar. “Too Much Blood” has the hardest pulse of any song on Handwritten – perhaps of any song Gaslight has written – but the most vulnerable lyrics lie beneath as Fallon mulls what will be left if he puts “too much blood on the page.”
The album ends with a spoonful of melancholia via acoustic gem National Anthem, which reinforces the American romance aesthetic with a solid top. And if you check out the deluxe edition, there are a couple bonus tracks and an eerily spot-on cover of Nirvana’s Sliver. It’s awesome.
Handwritten is the sonic equivalent of a great American roadtrip in a classic car next to someone with whom “It’s Complicated.” Only a handful of bands – The Menzingers come to mind – can approach Gaslight in terms of impassioned, soul-baring earnestness these days, and Handwritten is perhaps the most satisfying rock record of the year so far. Too much blood on the page? No such thing. Grow with you? I think most of us are along for the ride. As long as your ’64 GTO has enough room.
All of ’em