There's good news and bad news about New Jersey punk rockers The Gaslight Anthem's major labor debut, "Handwritten."
The good news: The boys are back, closer to the magic they struck with 2008's "The '59 Sound" than on any of the band's subsequent albums. The group sounds better than ever, the fears of a major label ruining the band are without merit, and the album is sure to be stuck on repeat in your CD (or record) player for the remainder of the summer.
But, the bad news: "Handwritten" is a safe album. That's not to say it isn't as heartfelt, soulful, or gritty and rocking as earlier efforts, but it isn't as immediately striking as frontman Brian Fallon's side project, The Horrible Crowes. It's better than 2010's "American Slang," that's easy to say. But for me it follows a similar trajectory to that album.
When I first listened to "American Slang," I was let down -- that's true here, as well. And then slowly, after some time, like digesting a large meal, the album grew and grew on me. The same thing is happening with "Handwritten. "
Fallon, as always, is adept as shining his lyrical flashlight through the hearts and souls of his listeners, and over the warping and weeping guitars of his band mates. But we've seen it all before. The opening track and lead single off the album, "45," may be the best track on the whole effort, but how many different ways can the band incorporate vinyl lingo in its songs? "Too Much Blood" could have been a keen insight into the paradox of singing and songwriting, but falls short of digging deep or making any revelations. Even my favorite tracks on the album are hard-hitting lyrical and tonal assaults, but are held back by misplaced sections that just don't fit in.
The album as a whole also remains fairly consistent. There are no slower-paced tracks to break things up (at least, not until the end), and everything pretty much clomps along in a similar tempo, which makes the songs run together a tad. It doesn't help when it sounds so similar to Gaslight's other works, either.
It's easy to sit and say that a band is resting on its laurels, and perhaps The Horrible Crowes is part of the problem. We've seen how far Fallon can stretch himself musically and still make great content. And yet, The Gaslight Anthem seems reserved for an almost formulaic use of his talents. The band has mastered how to make solid anthems to lost love, the days of vinyl, and late-night summer car rides, and "Handwritten" continues in that vein. Heading back to "'The '59 Sound" territory is one thing, but I wish the band had at least tried to break some new ground while it was there.
I hate to rag on an album that is still a notch above most other current music, and with each listen the album has grown on me (and I think it will continue to do so). It's great, solid Gaslight Anthem material. It's just not the group's best. But you can bet I'll be singing along and blasting it out my car windows nonetheless.
Hot tracks: "45," "Howl," "Mulholland Drive," "Biloxi Parish," "Desire"
The Gaslight Anthem plays as part of the 2012 Bonazi Fest at Highland Park on Saturday, July 28. Click here for more details.