Review Summary: "I already live with too many ghosts".
By their own admission, The Gaslight Anthem have spent their career chasing “classic cars and movie screens/and trying to find some way to be redeemed”. In the wrong hands such wistful nostalgia could easily come across as cheesy and trite, but Brian Fallon and the boys have always managed to convey more than enough sincerity to pull it off. Moreover, ever the optimistic outsiders, they have often managed to make their romanticised worldview sound life-affirming
. The heavily referential nature of their lyrics and their well-managed balance of sensitivity and bombast has seen them draw favourable comparisons to the Petty’s, Springsteen’s and Strummer’s of generations passed, as well as the Weakerthans, Alkaline Trio and Titus Andronicus. 'Handwritten' finds The Gaslight Anthem favouring the former over the latter, for it is they whom they reference and revere, and for better or worse, it is the arenas of the former who their newly increased pomposity seems to be firmly aimed at. Ha… well, nearly.
After all, much of ‘Handwritten’ has the subtlety of an Old White Lincoln crashing through your door. The title track and 'Keepsake'
are overblown and one-dimensional, marrying the most accessible features of generic radio rock, classic rock and Americana; their grandiosity grates rather than inspires and their structural progressions do little to excite. Save for a brief, airy bridge, 'Mulholland Drive'
is plodding and monotonous. Here, all potential for affable gruffness, gripping hooks and moments that move you are terminated by narrow dynamic and tonal ranges, while production values edge out any rough, unique characteristics. 'Desire'
suffers a similar problem: its promising guitar-leads are buried by vacuous "whoa"s, are just not given enough time to build on their fleeting potential, or else are muted by the domineering sheen of the album's production.
It's not all bad though. 'Biloxi Parish'
s blues-rock swagger, lead single '45'
s irrepressible pop-rock ebullience, and the high, lonesome tremolos of 'Too Much Blood'
s fragile chorus are definitely highlights. However, these highpoints are conspicuous by their presence. Musically, 'Handwritten' is nowhere near as gut-wrenching or emotionally vehement as it thinks it is; it aims for the stars and the stadiums but instead face-plants in the middle of the road. As a result, it falls to Brian Fallon's lyrics to salvage the album. Unfortunately, they fail to do so.
On previous albums Fallon's sparkling wordplay and intertextuality were interwoven into his narratives with commendable dexterity and portrayed an astute fondness for an imagined time, a lost time, or simply just another time. It was charming. It was effective. On 'Handwritten' however, these references are used haphazardly and sporadically: idly spelled out and rammed down the listeners' throats. The "oh-sha-la-la's" of 'Here Comes My Man'
, offer an all-too-obvious nod to Van Morrison, and are neither smart nor subtle. Furthermore, when set against a backdrop of jangly guitars a la 'Brown Eyed Girl', it sounds more like theft than tribute. 'Howl'
crackles with effusive energy, but its titling smells like Fallon lazily expecting listeners to fill in the gaping cracks with prior knowledge of Ginsberg; the same can be said of references to "the sound of thunder" and Ray Bradbury. Similarly, Fallon's more-earnest-than-thou boast of "every word (being) handwritten" is more irritatingly self-important than admirably traditionalist. Some of the references to their earlier work ('National Anthem'
s "I can't stand the weather…" and the characters in 'Mae'
"wait(ing) for kingdom come/with the radio on
" conjure 'Sink or Swim's 'Wooderson' and 'Angry Johnny & The Radio' respectively) are a nice touch though.
Slightly less offensive, though unpleasant enough in its own right, is Fallon's newfound sickly-sweet, plainer way of handling lyrical responsibilities. Throughout the album we are treated to lovesick, po-faced clunkers such as "I'm in love with the way you're in love with the moonlight", or "I’d just die if you ever took your love away". On 'Handwritten', Fallon's lyrics – previously a major selling point – are overbearing, thoughtless, and cringeworthy. Intricate, referential narratives are passed up in favour of more blunt, simplistic accounts of life. Although it was undoubtedly intended as a more personal, honest approach to song-writing, ultimately it comes across as awkward and doesn't endear at all.
Fallon's invitation on penultimate track 'Mae'
to an unknown girl to "lean into me if you ain't been in love for a while" shows its author looking for a simulation of the real thing, and in a sense this sums up 'Handwritten'. In trying to pay homage to their heroes, The Gaslight Anthem treads an easily-blurred line between identity and inspiration and more often than not, the result is superficial, faceless radio rock. The album is heavily polished, prepared with mainstream consumption in mind – this is not inherently a bad thing, but here all potentially endearing quirks and intricacies are mercilessly glossed over by its production. This, as well as seemingly running dry of interesting musical ideas, leaves 'Handwritten' bereft of the quality its creators are capable of. More problematic is Brian Fallon's direct, yet weak approach to lyrics: many of his narratives are disappointingly plain and his one-liners are frustratingly simple. The New Jersey boys are better than this.