Label: Mercury Records
For many of us, a lifelong fascination with a particular band begins with a radio hit in our formative years, a song on our brother’s stereo, or a mix-tape received during our first long-term relationship.
Whatever the circumstances may be, one thing remains universally true: we love these bands for very personal (and often emotional) reasons.
After all, they’ve written the soundtrack to our lives.
When I was 22, I discovered The Gaslight Anthem. I was in Seattle during law school reading-week and heard “The ’59 Sound” in a promo for MTV. The next day, I bought the album. I was hooked.
Four weeks later, something unexpected happened.
In mid-March, my 62-year-old (otherwise healthy) father was admitted to local hospital with a blood clot in his lung. Within a day, it went to his heart. Less than 24 hours later, I was informed by ICU doctors that neurological recovery was no longer possible. My father would be taken off life-support.
Most people use their finals hours with a dying parent to cry, apologize or reconcile.
Instead, I reached for my iPod, put one earphone in my dad’s ear, one in mine, and turned up “The ’59 Sound”. In a cold, dark hospital room, it was the final moment we’d ever share. The date was March 23, 2009.
One year later, on March 23, 2010, The Gaslight Anthem released “American Slang”.
Life has a funny way of working out sometimes.
But enough about me, let’s talk about the band.
In the 25 months since American Slang’s release, the New Jersey quartet has cracked the Billboard top-20 (peaking at #16), performed on The Late Show with David Letterman, and nestled themselves under the wing of fellow New Jerseyite, Bruce Springsteen. To many, they’ve become the face of the indie-punk movement.
But increased attention often results in heightened expectations. Handwritten was no exception, gaining recognition as the most anticipated album of the summer. Some critics even suggested it warranted album of the year consideration. Pretty lofty expectations for a bunch tattooed punks from New Brunswick.
So, does Handwritten live up to the hype?
Yes and no.
Handwritten is not the album of the year. It does not warrant a 5-star or A+ rating. There are no hit singles, timeless choruses or groundbreaking arrangements. If those are your expectations, this album fails miserably.
But I hope they aren’t, because this album is good.
As expected, Handwritten is chock full of gritty vocals, bluesy guitar licks, driving drum lines, strong hooks and poetic lyrics. While the band’s songwriting has certainly matured, they’ve also retained much of their existing (and successful) formula. The Springsteen influence remains evident on nearly every track. The punchy pre-chorus of “The ’59 Sound” is re-visited in the verses of “Handwritten”. The chorus melody in “Keepsake” could easily be replaced by American Slang’s “The Spirit of Jazz”. In that sense, Handwritten plays out like a greatest hits record.
The album was also written for an arena audience. There are plenty of hey-hos, oh-ah-ohs and other mindless sing-along parts, which are both effective (“Here Comes My Man”, “Howl”) and awkward (“Handwritten”, “Desire”) depending on the context. The album’s closer (“National Anthem”) is tailor made for a lighters-in-the-sky encore performance. It’s also destined for a Hollywood break-up montage.
While the frenetic pace and catchy chorus of “45” make it the album’s strongest track, Handwritten’s crown jewel is undoubtedly the outro to “Biloxi Parish”. Commencing with Brian Fallon’s vocals over a single guitar line, it crescendos into a massive double chorus that is as moving as anything the band has ever written. For these songs alone, the album is worth buying.
Ultimately, Handwritten should not be seen as the high watermark of 2012. Though the album has many good moments, it contains very few great ones. In that sense, it may not actually be the band’s best work.
But if you feel like getting nostalgic on a summer night, Handwritten is the album is for you.
Just make sure you turn it up.