July 23, 2012
Joe Strummer said the future is unwritten. For The Gaslight Anthem, it’s Handwritten.
The New Jersey heartland punks’ fourth album marks some major turning points for the six-year-old band — and its title reflects how it was conceived and crafted, says frontman Brian Fallon.
“I really did write the lyrics in a notebook; they were all literally written by hand,” explains the 32-year-old singer-guitarist. “Around the time I started writing these songs, a friend of mine gave me a letter and a poem he wrote. And that just sparked me; what if a record was a letter sent straight to the listener? It hit me that it was the most heartfelt thing I could do.”
It’s just one example of how the critically respected band — which also includes guitarist Alex Rosamilia, bassist Alex Levine and Benny Horowitz — has become more hands-on and direct in both its music and career. With Handwritten due Tuesday July 24, there’s no better time for us to count the ways life had changed for The Gaslight Anthem lately:
1 | They wrote these songs together
On the band’s first three albums — Sink or Swim (2007), The '59 Sound (2008) and American Slang (2010) — Fallon was chief songwriter, bringing fully formed tunes to be fleshed out by the band. Not this time. “I refused to do that anymore,” he says.
“That is not how bands operate, and we’re a band. I had to say, ‘You guys need to start writing with me, or else it’s the Brian Fallon show, and that’s not what I want … Either we’re going to do this a new way or I’m out.’ ” The transition wasn’t easy — the band penned nearly 50 songs for Handwritten — but having everyone chip in paid off, he believes. “It sounds more unified. Not to say anything bad about our previous records, which I love. But at this time in my life, I need something different.”
2 | Fallon’s lyrics are more revealing
Along with asking more of his bandmates, Fallon also challenged himself, stepping out from behind the narratives and pop-culture references that usually characterize his lyrics. “There’s no guard this time — no more stories, no more characters, no more New Jersey, no more nothing. Whatever I feel in my heart is going straight on the page. Because that’s what matters to a kid who’s listening, and what matters to me when I’m singing it every night. So I’m throwing it all out there.” This transition was easy, he insists. “It’s really freeing. I feel like a weight has been lifted off. Because people compare us to other bands constantly, but my story is not anyone else’s story. So you can’t compare that to anything.”
3 | They worked with Brendan O’Brien
Speaking of comparisons: Fallon knows that hiring superstar studio whiz Brendan O’Brien — co-producer of four Bruce Springsteen albums — will only reinforce the belief that he’s got a serious Boss fixation. “Yeah, I knew people were going to say we did it because Bruce Springsteen did it; apparently I also eat eggs in the morning because Bruce does. That’s a total joke. I’m from New Jersey; I know the guy; I’m the Springsteen expert. I’ll tell you when I’m copying him and when I’m not.” Truth is, he was actually copying Pearl Jam. “I skipped class to go buy Vs. the day it came out in 1993,” he says. “This is a guy who shaped our lives when we were kids growing up listening to grunge. Plus he’s the best musician I ever met in my life.”
4 | They’re playing in the big leagues
Getting O’Brien is only one of the benefits of the band’s new major-label deal, which comes as the music biz implodes and artists trumpet DIY as the future. Fallon knows he’s swimming against the hipster tide.
His response: So what? “We’ve never cast ourselves as this DIY punk band. We’ve never championed that cause. We’ve always said we were a rock ’n’ roll band and if people like us and we get big, that’s awesome. I’m not going to say no because of what somebody thinks. And so far, we haven’t done anything we didn’t want to do.” So we won’t see him in a spangly jacket on American Idol? “No, I’m doing that next week,” he cracks. “When they brought that up, I said, ‘Spangly jacket? Yeah!’ Why wouldn’t I do that?”
For the record: That was sarcasm.
5 | They don’t care what you think
Fallon’s defiance mirrors the most crucial change to the GA’s MO: They’ve stopped paying attention to what anyone says. Fallon no longer reads interviews like this. He no longer lets his heroes influence his work. He doesn’t care how many online followers or friends he has.
“We’ve been a band for so long, and we spent so much time defining who we were and where we came from and blah blah blah,” he says. “Well, I’ve decided that my life is not going to be dictated to me by what’s going on outside of my world. I don’t do this for everybody else. I do this for the kids who listen to our band, and for us — mainly for us. This is something we’re chasing. So I’m just going to put my head down and keep moving forward.” Into the unwritten future.
New Music Review: The Gaslight Anthem's 'Handwritten' is best rock record of 2012
The Gaslight Anthem, "Handwritten." The Gaslight Anthem’s “Handwritten" is the best rock album of 2012, and it very well still could be at the top of the heap come December.
The New Jersey band isn’t doing anything it hasn’t done before. They’re still channeling Bruce Springsteen and their parents' 1960s and 1970s records through the punk rock of The Clash and the 1980s heartfelt rock ‘n’ roll of The Replacements -- a combination that yields sincere, anthemic working-class rock.
“Handwritten” is Gaslight Anthem’s Mercury Records debut after releasing two excellent albums, “The ‘59 Sound” and “American Slang,” on SideOne Dummy. The album is given major label polish by Brendan O’Brien, the studio pro who’s done records for Springsteen and Paul Westerberg as well as Lincoln’s own Matthew Sweet.
Lyrically, singer/writer Brian Fallon is telling stories set around the radio and 45s, which seem out of time in the Internet/digital download era. But they’re somehow in the right place today.
Fallon pours out his heart -- literally in his recurring references to blood, and, figuratively, to radio, where he hopes, I’m sure, some of these songs will end up. But they don’t sound calculated for airplay. Rather, they’re a natural extension of what has come before.
There’s no Celtic or Caribbean influence and far less soul influence this time around -- more of a return to 2008’s “The ‘59 Sound” than 2010’s “American Slang.”
“Handwritten” drops the needle with “45,” a fist-pumping ode to records, engines and heartbreak; sticks a grungy power ballad, “Too Much Blood,” smack in the middle of its 11 tracks; and slides off side two with the gorgeous acoustic and strings “National Anthem” that would fit on a Springsteen record.
In between are stick-in-the-ear hooks; the “oh sha la las” of “Here Come My Man"; a straight-ahead love song by a Jersey boy writing about “Mulholland Drive"; a look back with pain and regret in “Keepsake"; and the album’s gem, the ‘Mats-like “Howl,” a rockin’ meditation on what it means to grow up.
It remains to be seen whether “Handwritten” will attract the larger audience The Gaslight Anthem deserves. No matter what happens, they’ve made a fine rock record -- an increasingly rare occurrence these days. Grade: A
Reach L. Kent Wolgamott at 402-473-7244 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/LJSWolgamott.