In the liner notes of Handwritten, The Gaslight Anthem’s excellent new album, there is a forward or introduction or whatever from author Nick Hornby. “What’s great about the Gaslight Anthem is that there’s an assumption that you’ll have heard something like this before – on the first Clash album, or on Born to Run, or the first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album or maybe on a Little Richard record. That’s what hooked me in…I know a lot of stuff sounds derivative, and makes you feel as though rock music is exhausted. It’s hard to find new ways to tell stories and write songs,” he writes. The entire piece is a big middle finger to all critics and detractors. It’s what the band wants to say but can’t. ‘Yea, we play rock and roll. Our songs sound like other rock and roll songs. We’re OK with that and so are our fans. Get on board or take a hike.’
The hype for Handwritten couldn’t be greater and it’s hard to deliver when expectations are through the roof. The major label debut for the New Jersey quartet is a collection of songs that cover much of the same ground as previous efforts–blue collar tales or heartache, nostalgia and self-examination. “45” kicks off the record and is easily the best example of vocalist Brian Fallon pushing his range to deliver a powerful sing-a-long chorus. The title track is another stellar offering from Fallon & Co., but the album loses steam until the middle section where Gaslight dares to extend their comfort zone. “Too Much Blood” is crunchy 90’s rocker, undoubtedly helped by producer Brendan O’Brien. “Howl” ups the tempo for some straight forward fun. And “Biloxi Parish” is swagged out Southern stomp.
The Gaslight Anthem have become a master of their own domain. They could write epic four-chord rock songs in their sleep, and have done so on their previous three releases. Handwritten was supposed to be where they made “The Leap.” It’s safe to say now that they won’t be the next Kings of Leon or Black Keys. And maybe that’s OK. But what do you do when, as Fallon sings on “45,” you “can’t move on and [I] can’t stay the same”?
Fallon has always said that he wants to play Giants Stadium, not The Stone Pony for the rest of his life. His aspirations are noble, but the execution just isn’t there, yet. Handwritten is most interesting when Gaslight takes chances and tries the unexpected. But it’s also the most fun when their tearing through a tight and predictable jam. Brian Fallon is a skilled songwriter who has rubbed shoulders with the best. His stories are vivid and evocative and with the right melodies and lead guitar riff, they are gold. There is no questioning his passion or intent. The songs can also feel somewhat cliched and can start to blend into one another if you listen long enough. But as Hornby writes, “…you think, write, play and sing as though you have the right to stand at the head of a long line of cool people – you recognize that the Clash and Little Richard got here first, but they’re not around anymore, so you’re going to carry on the tradition, and you’re going to do it in your own voice, and with as much conviction and authenticity and truth as you can muster. And if you can pull that off, you’ll be amazed at how fresh you can sound.”
Fresh in a world of Gaga and Rihanna? Sure. But if Gaslight want to be on the same level as those they are often compared against, they have to push themselves even further.