The '59 Sound was an iconic album for a lot of people; its punk songs about the heartland earned the band a extremely loyal following. The Gaslight Anthem's next record, American Slang, came with a larger label (Mercury) and showed evidence that the band was moving towards a more mainstream sound. Earlier this year, we got our first taste of Handwritten, Gaslight's fourth album. "45" was the single released long before the rest that assured loyalists and casual listeners alike that The Gaslight Anthem hadn't changed. Their sound has grown toward a more classic rock direction, but it still resembled the anthems the band's known for. If they had put any other song forward, there would be more concern -- "45" is perhaps the only the truly old-school Gaslight song on the entire record.
The rest of Handwritten still bares the subtle notes of a Gaslight album. One element clearly decipherable is the heavy Springsteen influence. Front man, Brian Fallon held on to that same gravelly quality in his vocals, which prompted the Springsteen comparison on past records. During "Too Much Blood" you can really hear how much Fallon's distinctive growl has matured since The '59 Sound. Gaslight shares even more common ground with The Boss in their tendency to write about their home state of New Jersey, vinyl records and t-shirts. You can hear and see the obvious parallels in their music. Listening to Handwritten it's easy to imagine Fallon driving around Jersey in a sea foam green car wearing a white t-shirt and faded jeans. Their songs project a vintage outlook-on-life in which every boy slicks his hair and every girl looks like Betty Davis/Grace Kelly.
Instrumentally, the band has pumped the brakes on the whole punk thing. The record is still built around guitar riffs, but at a slower pace than past anthems. There's less reverb than before, but there is still plenty of palm-muted goodness and soloing. Handwritten is an expansion in sound, but not by way of piling on extra instruments (save for the occasional stings) or unnecessary layering. Their new album isn't 100% pure, concentrated Jersey punk, but the sound they've begun cultivating should earn them the same respect.
The heart of the album is in its lyrics. Handwritten is an American record, but it also manages to produce a universal sentimentality that break hearts far outside of the tri-state area. From the 'woah-ohs' in "Handwritten" to the wax record references of "Blue Dahlia" it is an album driven by story-lines and lives. Again, taking a note from Bruce, Gaslight wrote songs with cast and company in mind, giving Handwritten a personal touch. Fallon steeps his songs in feeling that we can't help but find relatable. The crooning vocals of "Here Comes My Man" run along the same veins that hit us right in the heart during The '59 Sound. However, occasionally the sentimentality tips the scale, like in "Too Much Blood," when Fallon sounds more like he should be breathing into a paper bag, not writing records.
If the other tracks leave you questioning the stamina or longevity of the group, "National Anthem" should be all the proof you need to restore your faith. The acoustic track runs in the opposite direction of what's expected, but hits the same notes, just from a different angle. Much like the rest of the album, it's a strange fit when compared to the rest of their discography. The song is a gentle swell, unlike "Great Expectations" or "Meet Me By The River's Edge". The punks that wrote The '59 Sound are nowhere to be found in these tracks, but there is still a talented band at the helm.