You’ve got to give Brian Fallon credit, he really does try. Ever since the Gaslight Anthem burst onto the scene five years ago, they’ve fused their melodic punk with self-consciously poetic lyrics, using intimate character sketches to address their romanticised take on the American working class. In this respect Handwritten, the band’s fourth effort, is business as usual.
What’s different this time around is amount of polish the band has coated their songs in. Previous albums had rough edges but here they have been sanded down into big, gleaming hooks. Tracks like Here Comes My Man and the opening “45” sound positively stadium sized. The Gaslight Anthem have always worn their affection for Bruce Springsteen on their sleeves but this is the first time they are actively trying to imitate him, something that does not always flatter the band. Fallon desperately wants his words to count, to have something important to say but often his words are lost in the bluster. His tales of New Jersey life shoot for Born to Run but often fall more in line with Livin’ on a Prayer. That is not to say they’re bad, just somewhat hollow.
It’ to the band’s immense credit then that Handwritten doesn’t collapse under its own perceived weight. That’s because, despite their lofty ambitions, they still know their way ‘round a good melody, especially on the faster numbers where Fallon’s intense delivery really helps sell their romantic “rock can save you” mindset. In fact, Fallon’s full-throated vocal attack is what frequently saves the band. You can just about forgive their overindulgences because, by god, they sound like they mean business. The message is occasionally forced but the delivery is never anything less than genuine.
It’s clear from Handwritten that catchy songs aren’t enough for Fallon. He wants the Gaslight Anthem to be The Boss or The Clash. He wants them to be the only band that matter. Handwritten may fall short of that grand mission statement but it has good songs to spare, something that is equally commendable. You just can’t help from thinking that if The Gaslight Anthem stopped trying to prove themselves and have a little fun they might get there yet.