Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Gaslight Anthem: ‘Handwritten’ (2012)

In the end, all we needed to know about The Gaslight Anthem’s latest record we could’ve determined from the band’s two choices for cover songs. 

If you buy the deluxe edition of “Handwritten” (highly recommended) you’ll find what at first seem like two odd and disparate selections for covers at the end of the collection: “Sliver” by Nirvana, and “You Got Lucky” by Tom Petty. How did they arrive at these, specifically? I was a bit perplexed myself … until I actually heard the record. 

One of Gaslight’s core strengths is the band’s ability to put its own spin on their musical influences. Their fascination with Bruce Springsteen and soul music is well documented over the course of their first three albums, but “Handwritten” demonstrates their broader swath of input. Remember: these guys are all around age 30, so they grew up with “grunge,” an era that until now they’ve largely ignored in their songwriting. Now with “Handwritten” Gaslight Anthem moves beyond its pop/punk roots into modern-rock territory. This is easily the band’s heaviest, most traditional rock album, showcasing their affinity for bands like Soundgarden, Nirvana, and, most of all, Pearl Jam. To top it off, the album was produced by the godfather of grunge himself, Brendan O’Brien—and, it should be noted, a recent Springsteen collaborator. 

So with that frame of rerence, here is a track-by-track breakdown of “Handwritten”: 

Writing a follow-up to a song as big as “The ’59 Sound” is never easy. Gaslight didn’t quite accomplish the feat on their last record, 2010’s “American Slang,” but they do here with lead track and single “45.” This high-octane piece captures the spirit of “’59” without being merely a knockoff.

“45” summarizes frontman Brian Fallon’s core songwriting motif: Acknowledge the pain, look for the positives, and move on. Thus the “turn the record over” chorus, which is just great to shout along to live (where this song really takes off). Fallon pushes his voice to the limits of his range here, but it works just fine (as opposed to some of his work in last year’s side project, The Horrible Crowes). 

This is a simple song, but sometimes simple works best. It comes off as an effortless hit, perfectly structured for maximum pop/rock/punk success. 
REMINDS ME OF: “The ’59 Sound” (Gaslight)

I’m conflicted by this song. As the album’s title track it obviously means a lot to the band, yet it feels like they overworked it. The “whoa whoas” to open are unnecessary, and then the first verse and chorus are a bit melodramatic. Romantic notions certainly worked for the band in their earlier work, but they stand out a bit too much here (and occasionally in other songs); as Fallon’s shifted toward a more literal writing style, lines like “We only write by the moon” come off as a bit … much.

That being said, “Handwritten” is a musical powerhouse, with the band hitting on all cylinders. Big chords, big choruses, big … everything. The second half of the song redeems the first half, particularly this glorious section:

Here in the dark I cherish the moonlight
I’m in love with the way you’re in love with the night
And it travels from heart to limb to pen

REMINDS ME OF: “Meet Me by the River’s Edge” (Gaslight)

‘Here Comes My Man’
A nice change of pace here in the No. 3 slot, taking the pedal off the gas a bit for a midtempo rocker with some soul mixed in. “Here Comes My Man” marks the first of several Pearl Jam-inspired moments, as Fallon writes from a woman’s perspective a la Eddie Vedder. 

Musically this song reminds me of “Behold the Hurricane” from The Horrible Crowes, especially in its big swells into the chorus. I absolutely loved this song when I heard it for the first time at Gaslight’s “Live on Letterman” performance; the studio version is a touch tamer, but still builds to a great, rambunctious climax. 
REMINDS ME OF: “Behold the Hurricane” (The Horrible Crowes), “Countin’ on a Miracle” (Bruce Springsteen)

‘Mulholland Drive’
Easily my least favorite song on the album. The entire thing feels forced, right from the strained opening verse where Fallon’s nearly a capella. To me it seems like he fell in love with the unique way he delivers the “I’d just die if you ever took your love away” line and built a song around it. That phrase is repeated way too much and is another example of the lyrical melodrama that hampers this record and takes me out of the moment (see: “Handwritten,” “Desire”). 

Lead guitarist Alex Rosamila delivers a scorching solo that is definitely worth appreciating, and “Mulholland” is one of several instances on “Handwritten” where the band embraces its classic-rock influences. Though it finishes strong (in typical Gaslight fashion), I just don’t see this song holding up over time. Too repetitive, too forced, too melodramatic.

So we go from my least favorite song on “Handwritten” to one of the best. Fallon’s shifted to more personal lyrics over the past couple records, and “Keepsake” is arguably the capstone. Here he addresses an absentee father in open-wound detail in a song that again evokes Pearl Jam lyrically (“Release”) and musically (“Smile”). 

Fallon’s writing on this track is so strong it’s hard to pick a snippet to highlight here. But the chorus is particularly striking: 

And at the bottom of this river
Is where I put you down to lay so I could live with it
And in my hard, hard heart there are these waters
Where I put you down to lay while I learned to live with it … until I’m free

Thankfully, my father is fantastic so I can’t relate to this song from my own life’s story. But I’ve known people very, very close to me who can, and thus “Keepsake” strikes a particularly strong chord. It perfectly describes the struggle of a man coming to grips with the pain and damage inflicted by his father, and the battle you have to fight to heal those scars. 

Add to all of this one of the strongest pieces of songwriting on the album and you have the makings of a great track. “Keepsake” is a slow-burning, hard-charging monster of a track with chugging verses and a soaring chorus, all backed with the hint of a harmonica, which we haven’t heard on a Gaslight track since their debut album in 2007. 

“Keepsake” represents a new facet to Gaslight’s sound, being the best example of their modern-rock influences on this record. Couple that with one of Fallon’s best efforts as a lyricist, and this is a burgeoning classic for the band.
REMINDS ME OF: “Smile” (Pearl Jam)

‘Too Much Blood’
So just as I praised Gaslight-gone-grunge in the last track, there is definitely a point where you can have too much of a good thing. “Too Much Blood” is yet another thick, midtempo stomper reminiscent perhaps of Soundgarden; it marks just one too many of these types of tracks on “Handwritten.” By this point in the record the band hasn’t changed speeds since the title track back in the second slot. “Too Much Blood” drags the entire middle section down.

I understand why it’s here, though. “Too Much Blood” is a complement to its predecessor, “Keepsake.” It’s no accident that after Fallon reveals his internal lifelong family struggle he’s wondering here what becomes of a man and his relationships if he pours all his emotions out in such public a way: “If I just tell the truth/Are there only lies left for you?” It’s a powerful sentiment, for sure, backed by an equally potent guitar squall in the heaviest Gaslight track yet written. But it just all seems a bit too much. I’d rather seen “Too Much Blood” as a b-side, or at least moved to another point in the record to break up the slow-flow monotony.
REMINDS ME OF: “Black Hole Sun” (Soundgarden)

This is a frustrating listen. At just 2 minutes, 6 seconds long, “Howl” is tied for the shortest song in Gaslight’s catalog. If ever a track deserved an extra … something (even a repeated chorus!), it’s this one. Gaslight’s other short songs—“Senor and the Queen,” “Wooderson,” etc.—feel complete despite their brevity; “Howl” breezes by so quickly, I feel a little cheated when it ends so abruptly.

That being said, “Howl” is a breath of fresh air on this album and marks a change for the better in how the back half plays out. The chiming opening guitar is like an alarm clock, leading to one of my favorite verses on the album:

Hey wake it up! Hey shake it out!
Does anything still move you since you’re educated now
And all grown up and traveled so well?
Do you still hear the sound of thunder while you lie up by yourself?

To me this is a call to arms against becoming jaded, cynical, and too cool for our own good. We think we’re so smart and enlightened and so over being able to tap into something as elemental as a rock and roll song. “Howl,” indeed—many of us could use a good howl.

‘Biloxi Parish’
Here is the Tom Petty/classic-rock influence we haven’t heard quite so explicitly to this point in Gaslight’s career. Its crunchy riff and catchy chorus are straight out of the pop/rock mainstream with as catchy a hook as they’ve ever delivered. It works because Fallon delivers some of his best writing of the album. It’s a song of open-eyed commitment, where he tells his lover that he knows and understands her faults like no other, yet loves her anyway and is in for the long haul. “I’ll be with you through the dark/So you don’t go through the dark alone.” It’s a beautiful, mature sentiment that takes the typical love song to a deeper level. “Biloxi Parish” is one of the best tracks on the record.

Once again Fallon offers us complementary pieces in back-to-back songs. If “Biloxi Parish” is a statement of commitment, then “Desire” wonders if he’s deserving of having that commitment returned. 

What makes a woman believe in a man such as me?
Unworthy to sit at your foot or your crown
I can only let you down

This song is darn near perfect lyrically, with levels of depth to sift through over multiple listens. About the only line I don’t like is the—again—overly dramatic “I would give anything for the touch of your skin” … it just feels a bit out of place on a song that is otherwise so frank and real. 

“Desire” is a breezy uptempo track the likes of which Gaslight seems to toss off with such ease. This one, in particular, reminds me of “The Spirit of Jazz” from “American Slang,” a song that I originally thought was just nice but grew on me steadily in the months since its initial release. “Desire” has had the same effect; it is more complex than it initially appears and shouldn’t be overlooked. 
REMINDS ME OF: “The Spirit of Jazz” (Gaslight)

“Mae” is the most difficult track for me to write about on this entire record. On the surface it seems so simple … it’s subdued, it’s quiet, on first listen you might think it doesn’t really go anywhere. That’s because it’s one of Gaslight’s most subtle anthems, placed toward the back of an album chock-full of dramatic movements and statements. 

But listen more closely. Preferably late at night, ideally in a car, definitely with the windows down and the volume turned way up. There is so much going on in this song that can be missed if you’re not paying attention.

Let’s start with the fact it’s a welcome throwback to Fallon’s original writing style. Just the name alone, Mae, is a variation on his use of names like Mary, Maria, etc. There’s also the classic film reference—in this instance Bette Davis—and a refrain that mentions listening to the radio in a car. 

But it takes all those Gaslight hallmarks and moves them forward. Yeah, this is the closest Fallon gets to a Springsteen song on this record, but it’s more from the “Tunnel of Love” era than “classic” Boss. The characters in “Mae” may be heading out for a long-haul drive, but it’s not born in some hyper-romantic notion of escape; rather, these are two people who are beat down, tired, and just in need of some company. No huge promises, no great expectations, just the comfort of another person’s presence. Here’s the wonderful chorus: 

I wanna see you tonight
Would you come for a drive?
You can lean into me
If you ain’t been in love for awhile

The song’s music is subtle, too, adding small layers of intensity with each verse/chorus pair. Fallon’s voice gets stronger and more passionate as he goes along in perhaps his best performance on the album; he matches the hypnotic crescendo of Benny Horowitz’s drums. This song is also Horowitz’s best work on the album; his percussion is almost melodic, reminiscent of The National. It all builds to a cathartic final chorus and coda that is one of the best moments on the entire record. 
REMINDS ME OF: The National, new-millennium U2, “Tunnel of Love”-era Springsteen

‘National Anthem’
Fallon is not an overtly political person, so it’s fitting that the most political song he’s ever written is a non-partisan affair. I read “National Anthem” as a lament for the United States, a nation Fallon loves but fears may have left him—and one he hopes will return to him again. The second verse of this song stands as my favorite lines on the entire album, as Fallon—a Christian—cries out to his fellow man, in all of our arrogance, to rekindle our faith in a power higher than our self-obsessed selves:

Now everybody lately is living up in space
Flying through transmissions on invisible airwaves
With everything discovered just waiting to be known
What’s left for God to teach from his throne?
And who will forgive us when he’s gone?

“National Anthem” is the record’s final Vedder homage, rekindling his quieter acoustic work. It’s impossible for me not to compare this echo-y, orchestrated number to “The End,” which closed Pearl Jam’s last record (also produced by O’Brien) in similar fashion. “National Anthem” is just as effective and affecting.
REMINDS ME OF: “The End” (Pearl Jam)


‘Blue Dahlia’
I have no idea how this song didn’t make “Handwritten.” Not only is it my favorite track from this set, it already stands as one of my favorite Gaslight tracks of all time. If I had just one song to turn someone onto this band, “Blue Dahlia” would be a good candidate; it’s like they took all the best elements from all of their best songs and combined them into one glorious track. 

It has the charging tempo of “The ’59 Sound” or “I Coulda Been a Contender” and the sense of relentless momentum reminiscent of “Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis?”, while the bridge evokes the punch-to-the-gut wistfulness of “Blue Jeans and White T-Shirts.” And the lyrics … they’re like a Gaslight greatest-hits package stuffed into 4 minutes and 38 seconds, with references to the beach, steamy streets, suntanned girls, carnival rides, and good ol’ vinyl records. Even the song’s name evokes Gaslight’s affinity for the classics.

But more than that, it’s the message of “Blue Dhalia” that grips me. It is a summation of Fallon’s lyrical intent—the idea that we can acknowledge our pain and scars, find kindred spirits, and help one another bury those ghosts: “Mama always knew I’d meet a girl like you/But me, I never believed/Cause I’ve been so lonely I can’t imagine that kind of sympathy.” In his delivery, Fallon conveys the desperation of a desolate soul and then the disbelieving joy at finding someone to drag him back to the surface; the way he sings this song is so pure and honest and sincere, it’s almost too much to bear. 

The only reason I can figure this track was left off the album is they must have thought it was too similar to their prior work; Fallon’s expressed in interviews that he doesn’t want to fall back on past success. But to that I say: Sometimes you just gotta do what you do, baby. “Blue Dahlia” is a perfect Gaslight Anthem song in every possible way. 
REMINDS ME OF: Every great song this band’s ever written

‘Teenage Rebellion’
This breathy acoustic number feels more like a Fallon solo piece than a full Gaslight song, so it’s fitting as a b-side and didn’t deserve to be on the official album. That being said, it’s an evocative song, with its multi-tracked vocals and flits of piano. The lyrics are a bit more esoteric than Fallon typically employs, so “Teenage Rebellion” is better left to sift into your consciousness than over-analyze. Let it live in a bit of mystery, and you’ll enjoy it. 
REMINDS ME OF: “The Blues, Mary” (Fallon solo)

I always judge a band by their cover selections and how well they come across; Gaslight certainly lives up to that standard. You should hear the fandom, the respect, the love in the performance. This is one of the best Nirvana covers I’ve ever heard. Fallon, in particular, is downright spooky in the way he evokes Kurt Cobain’s ragged vocal style; it’s a comparison I never thought of before hearing this song, but now wonder how I didn’t put it together earlier. I just wish they’d picked a stronger track to cover.

‘You Got Lucky’
Again, of all the Petty tracks to choose from, how’d they arrive at this one? It’s not a bad song, but I’d say it’s in the middle range of Petty’s work—go check out their official cover of “Refugee” from last year if you want to hear them at their Heartbreaking best. Gaslight pull this one off well, though; it’s a testament to their talent and versatility that they can carry off two such different covers as this and “Sliver” with equal excellence. 

To say this is The Gaslight Anthem’s weakest album is true, yet unfair. This is my favorite band on the planet, and their work to this point in their young career has been exemplary. The faults I find with “Handwritten” are minor, but they are faults nonetheless and there are more here than on any of their previous albums; I would’ve preferred a different sequencing to improve the pacing, and I definitely would’ve found a way to get “Blue Dahlia” into the tracklist somehow—that glaring misstep is unavoidable. On the whole, though, it is yet another strong effort that showcases an entirely new side to the band and delivers a handful of songs that I believe will remain in constant rotation for years to come.