If The Gaslight Anthem sound like Bruce Springsteen, there’s probably a good reason for that. They are a blue-collar band hailing from New Jersey, playing muscular rock and roll songs about how good things were in some more innocent time, and the need to break free. It’s practically genetic.
However, whenever comparisons are drawn between a young act and an established master (or ‘Boss’) of the genre, expectations are automatically raised, meaning that whatever the newcomer pulls out of the bag has to be something particularly special. The Gaslight Anthem have managed this in the past. Their second album, The ‘59 Sound, was on hard rotation on my hifi for a good few months. Their particular skill lies in taking a kind of music that you’ve definitely heard before and making it seem vital and relevant in a way that many Springsteen-aping bands fail to do.
It’s a shame, then, that their newest album, Handwritten, fails to live up to this promise.
It’s not a bad album, not by any measure. The same factors that made The ’59 Sound such a joy are still present. The band have lost none of their energy, none of their verve and wit, and none of their usual lyrical themes. The music still sounds like it used to. But, in some ways, that’s part of the problem with the new album.
There’s a sense that we’ve heard these songs before, on The ’59 Sound. The style has barely changed at all, which leaves the listener in something of a quandary. It’s by no means definite that new is always better, that trying out new styles and elements in music is the way for a band to go. In some cases, it’s nice to know what you’re getting. But it’d be a real shame to see The Gaslight Anthem become another band that releases the same album ten times in a row, especially after their third album, American Slang.
American Slang showcased a different side to the band, a side that was appealing, more melodic, more polished and professional than that which came through on their first two albums. If The Gaslight Anthem had carried on in that vein, there is a chance that they could have been a truly big name, a world-conquering rock band. Unfortunately, for all its charm, Handwritten is nowhere near the record it would need to be for that ambition to be realised.