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The Gaslight Anthem have never shied away from allowing their musical heroes to influence their own sound. The band’s catalog is proof of this, dating back to their 2007 debut, Sink or Swim. Overall, the album channels early Against Me!; particularly evident on ‘Boomboxes and Dictionaries’, with the song’s chorus conspicuously mirroring that of ‘Sink, Florida, Sink’. While comparisons to additional artists could be made, The Gaslight Anthem’s most prominent creative stimulus over the course of their career has undoubtedly been Bruce Springsteen, whose influence pulsates through their entire discography. Not too surprisingly, The Gaslight Anthem’s latest release, Handwritten, comes across as more Boss-inspired than ever, and the lack of originality here could be a factor in why I haven’t been instantly captivated by the record.
Sink or Swim hooked me from the onset, as did 2010’s American Slang; 2008’s The ’59 Sound, however, took its time in drawing me in. Incidentally, the latter – prior to Handwritten’s release – was largely hailed as The Gaslight Anthem’s masterpiece, so I’m well aware that there’s probably just something horribly wrong with me. Despite being part of the freakish minority not immediately blown away by the record, I don’t dislike Handwritten, and there are plenty of positives worth mentioning.
The album’s opening track, ‘45’, is a real standout, its infectious rhythm and sing-along chorus jumpstarting the album perfectly. Equally enjoyable, the record’s title track has a distinct classic rock feel to it, with Brian Fallon’s gritty vocals biting through a pleasingly simplistic guitar riff.
The placid twang of guitar intertwined with tambourine generates a beautifully flowing ode in ‘Here Comes My Man’, but it’s ‘Mulholland Drive’, which follows, that is easily recognisable as the pinnacle of Handwritten; everything works, from the song’s pounding rhythm, to Alex Rosamilia’s wailing guitar solo, and Fallon bellowing, "I was aching to hear you say, oh that I’d just die if you ever took your love away".
‘Too Much Blood’, another high point of Handwritten, combines The Gaslight Anthem’s characteristically soulful lyrics with a hammering rhythm and an effectively rasping vocal performance. The leap into joyfully upbeat track ‘Howl’ offers a change of pace, instantaneously lifting the record.
‘Mae’ and ‘National Anthem’ provide a more mellow tone – Fallon treads delicately through the verses on ‘Mae’, while the band’s instruments gradually build, ultimately peaking with a swelling guitar riff acting as the song’s chorus. Album closer ‘National Anthem’ serves as Handwritten’s customary acoustic track, but doesn’t measure up to the emotional impact of Sink or Swim’s harmonica-infused ‘Red At Night’, or ‘Here’s Looking at You, Kid’ from The ’59 Sound.
Although some have branded The Gaslight Anthem’s trademark sentimentality as hokey, I can’t help but be engaged by the way their songwriting depicts life and heartbreak in a manner that almost transports the listener to a simpler time. On Handwritten, the band approaches these themes with the same romanticism as always, summoning imagery that makes a vinyl record seem so significant, and handwritten words beautiful.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with Handwritten, and no particular aspect of the record that I can fault – musically and lyrically, the album is certainly accomplished, and Brian Fallon’s hoarse vocal performance is exhilarating. Handwritten is a more mature and reflective effort from the band, and upon revisiting their discography in succession, maybe The Gaslight Anthem are right where they should be. All in all though, the record feels too much like ‘Bruce Springsteen Meets The Gaslight Anthem’ – theoretically, a great idea for a television crossover episode, but essentially, an unnecessary merging of two talents. While I recognise the record’s gratifying attributes, I haven’t been as transfixed by it as I had hoped, and I’ve found myself longing for the sensation that Sink or Swim and American Slang gave me.