Review Summary: In the backseat, we're just trying to find some room to breathe.
The opening of Handwritten
's centrepiece, "Too Much Blood", turns back round to 2010's American Slang
and punches it in the face for being so hell-bent on sounding cool. It needs next track "Howl" in its wake, to blow the cobwebs away, but the thing to acknowledge about the Gaslight Anthem in 2012 is that they appear to have learned the value of that trade-off. There is no sort of clamouring to turn every track here into an anthem on the same level of The '59 Sound
's eponymous track, no rush to a self-gratifying chorus just for the sake of it. Handwritten
sounds immensely organic, built - like '59 Sound
was - around Brian Fallon's stories.
It's great for that focus to shift, and it alone allows Handwritten
to breathe without sounding anywhere close to fatigued. While the Gaslight Anthem still owe a hat-tip to Springsteen, "Mae" is the sort of full and almost atmospheric song they could never have written four years ago, a mid-tempo ballad which carries the kind of undercurrent that feathered "Here's Looking At You, Kid" but marries it with a tender, nostalgic, full-band aesthetic. These things all swing around the same axis in a gorgeous fashion, until Fallon sings, "if you ain't been in love for a while," and in that moment they grow and blossom into something to die for.
If you remove Handwritten
from its discographical context, and imagine it as a first encounter, it's an assured, excellent collection of songs, but in light of the band's earlier material - from Sink or Swim
through a Fallon solo album last year - its contemplative edges probably mark an important point in the road. The Gaslight Anthem feel like a band that, until now, have been accidentally playing in the dark; Handwritten
, much as it is still a rock album, finds them with an ease, confidence, and general openness, that they've never seemed to need or want before. It doesn't quite spike with the sharp edges of old, but the passion is in a more intelligent place, and it's a place worth returning to with at least the same frequency as those hospital walls.