By Huntress Thompson
I read somewhere recently that the strength of Bruce Springsteen as a performer is that, when you listen to his records and watch his shows, you really believe that at the end of the day he goes home and lives like a retired New Jersey mechanic. It’s authenticity of character. Regardless of how long he’s been America’s biggest rock star, it’s never blue collar schtick, and there’s never any doubt that he is that worn and wistful of a warrior.
I think this is why people love The Gaslight Anthem too.
Right out the gate, they were immediately identified as That Jersey Band That Loves Springsteen. Never, That Springsteen Tribute Act, or That Band With That Guy Who Wishes He Was Springsteen.
When you listen their records, and when you watch their shows, you really believe that at some point in the story, they were Jersey kids who knew exactly what Springsteen was talking about when he sang about their precise kid restlessness, loved that, and thought they’d give it a go themselves. It’s once removed, but that’s authenticity of character too.
Handwritten is the band’s first release after lead singer Brian Fallon’s work with side project The Horrible Crowes, and their fourth overall. It’s an album for, and about, groups of people. It’s meant to be performed in front of crowds, and it speaks to them like it’s addressing a loyal fraternity of lost dreamers.
Like almost every The Gaslight Anthem record so far, Handwritten has tides that come in and tides that go out. They don’t always take you with them, but when they do, you’re different when you wash up with all the beer bottles and the shells on the shore.
First single 45, has had fans manic at live shows this year. It’s about the bruises of young love lost, and the admin of heartache, as you put on a brave face while every song on the radio is about you. It’s gone and you’re hurting, and you’re kind of annoying to be around but your friends stick around. And like the actual act of losing young love, this song looks you right in the eye when it takes you to the top of the swell, and drops you.
And I dance with your ghost,
Oh, but that ain’t the way
I can’t move on and I can’t stay the same
And all my friends say
“Hey hey, turn the record over
Hey hey, and I’ll see you on the flip side.”
On Handwritten you’ll hear shades of The Replacements and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and every bit of the All-American bittersweet that made that band great. This romance is filtered through a ballsier aesthetic than we’ve previously heard from them, like on Howl or Biloxi Parish. Grander riffs, more guitar solos, soaring melodies – they’re aiming high, but care has been taken not to leave behind any of their trademark poetics.
“Like you waited on his call and made your plans for great escapes
And there used to be a movement in the way your dress would wave
From your hips on down, like electric through the ground”
Across the album, the vocals are mightier and we’re hearing a more embattled Fallon than ever before. The choruses are more anthemic, with more room for crowds to roar them back, which makes Fallon less of the Platonic icon for the dreamy dispossessed that he has been up until now, and more of a firestarter for an army of weary-hearted romantics.
Handwritten is a record written to be played live – in stadiums or in ratty town halls, or wherever the world-worn dreamers live, waiting to howl back these anthems for people who anthems forget.
It’s available for streaming at NPR. Handwritten will be officially released this week.
In the vacuum between dark and light, Siouxsie Sioux and Emmylou Harris, Amelie and Travis Bickle, Huntress Thompson is an idiot lost, and reporting from the field. If you’re after irrational, impassioned rants about cupcakes and Johnny Cash (and you probably aren’t), she’s grumpy, but she’s your girl.