They come from New Jersey, they sing about cars and girls and working “our fingers down to dust”…but always with the radio on. No, it’s not Bruce and his E-Streeters, not Southside Johnny, not even Bon Jovi. The Gaslight Anthem have taken the working-class rock ethic of The Garden State and driven it into the ground with this, their fourth long player.
When the NJ four-piece first arrived on the scene five years ago they were considered a punk band, albeit one with and of gratitude to Messrs’ Springsteen and Petty. Now that they’ve signed to a major label and employed producer Brendan O’Brien (Springsteen, Pearl Jam), there’s a lot less Strummer in their music and a lot more self-righteous earnestness.
Sound-wise, O’Brien seems to have squeezed any personality out of the band’s playing with his highly-compressed, slick production. The music sounds faceless…which leaves the focus on lead singer Brian Fallon.
Sadly, Mr. Fallon seems to be in dire need of a sense of humour, or something to break up the over-wrought earnestness of his lyrics and his singing. On the album’s title track, Fallon seems to reject any fancy electronic gadgetry as a way to communicate, everything he writes is handwritten…”it travels from heart, to limb, to pen”. He wraps up the song with the embarrassingly over-the-top couplet, “and with this pen, I thee wed/from my heart to your distress. I almost gaged when I heard that one.
And there are plenty more where that came from. Fallon mines his emotional depths…looking for a long lost mother in Keepsake, or working his fingers to the bone in Mae. In almost every song, the radio is nearby; ready to save his soul…the first song is called “45”, just in case you didn’t understand that this is a man stuck in a romanticized past who seems incapable of moving into the present day.
Meanwhile, while all this gut-wrenching, handwringing earnestness is going down, the band plays along, sounding like a generic version of The Clash/Replacements/Social Distortion (take your pick).
I gave The Gaslight Anthem’s previous album, 2010’s American Slang, a quick spin to see if this was always the case. Yes, there was some of the same earnestness, but the band, under Ted Hutt’s production, was allowed to breathe a bit. There was some roll to their rock. Here, they sound like an annoying mosquito, buzzing around your ear for no apparent reason.
The only respite is the final track, National Anthem, which finds Fallon accompanied by an acoustic guitar and a string section. His singing has relaxed a bit and his lyrics…about disillusionment both personally and with his country…sound heartfelt and natural. If there had been a few more tracks like this scattered among the album, the listening experience would have been much more pleasant. As it is, give Handwritten a miss and perhaps check out their older records such as 2008’s That ’59 Sound. Or simply crank up The River, London’s Calling or Damn The Torpedoes. Hey, it’s what The Gaslight Anthem seems to be doing…just cut out the middle man.
Click here to listen to Handwritten from Handwritten: