Release Date: July 24, 2012
“I used to write letters / I used to sign my name,” the Arcade Fire’s Win Butler wistfully lamented a few years ago, his fit of sullen e-phobia both understandable in this era of dizzying cultural hyperdrive and prematurely codgerish coming from a mere ’80s baby. But on the title track to Handwritten, the Gaslight Anthem’s fourth full-length, fellow 32-year-old Springsteen fan Brian Fallon one-ups his future-shocked Canuck contemporary. Not only do Fallon and his gang of Jersey greaser-punks still write letters, consarnit, but they “only write by the moon” — guess electric light’s for pussies. That sound you hear is punk rock’s work-with-what-you-got DIY ethos devolving into Etsy’s cloying fetishism of the homemade.
The irony is that there’s few personal touches in the songs here — no well-etched detail that indicates an individual’s lived experience, no unforeseen shift in rhythm or melody, nothing anyone Fallon’s age hasn’t heard already and learned by heart. That’s kind of the point. With their pent-up verses of fatalistic despair crashing down upon their inevitable choruses in waves of rousing disappointment, this is rock as ritualistic submission to what’s gone before, leavened with a little old-timey “whoa-oa-oa-oa” here and a little “sha la la la” there for the sake of singing along.
Admirers admit that this familiarity is integral to the Gaslight Anthem’s appeal as they lovingly list the band’s influences. The obvious granddaddy of such proudly epic blue-collar defeatism is the cartoon reduction of Springsteen that’s inspired so many pretenders to Bossdom through the years, from the Iron City Houserockers to Marah and beyond. They celebrate a Bruce who’s all “Backstreets” and no “Rosalita,” a Bruce who should have rejected ’80s synths as unworthy of his more bleak, melodramatic vision.
But the Gaslight Anthem also grind their gears in the manly loser-punk tradition best exemplified by desperate dead-enders like Social Distortion. To call that style a dead end isn’t an insult — it’s just infatuated with limitations, with the loss of possibilities, with born-to-lose misfits who crash and burn at maximum intensity while expressing self-conscious regret at their reckless folly. Fallon even brags that “all of my heroes are failures and ghosts, burned out in brilliant explosions, alone,” on “Biloxi Parish.” You don’t wanna get mixed up with a guy like him. He’s a loner, Dottie. A rebel.
But Fallon’s got a warmer delivery than Social D’s Mike Ness, let alone whoever sang for Marah. That’s why the Anthem’s got big-name producer Brendan O’Brien tending patiently to their guitar hooks until the new single, “45,” is as fragrant as freshly blooming Gin Blossoms. If Modern Rock radio was still a thing, you wouldn’t know who was shouting “Turn the record over” till August, and you wouldn’t be sick of that guy before Labor Day. But those days are gone, my friend. As the first cut on an album as opposed to a hit single, “45” just signals a thematic infatuation with outmoded technology, and lines like “Have you seen my heart? / Have you seen how it bleeds?” introduce you to a jerk who flaunts his supposedly raw intensity with a kind of emotional snobbery.
As a lyricist, Fallon has moved beyond bald cliché to bland commonplace. The guy who once embarrassed himself with titles like “Miles Davis & the Cool” and lines like, “They burnt up the diner where I always used to find her / Licking young boys’ blood from her claws,” now settles for rote romantic lies like, “I would just die if you ever took your love away”; achieves blank epiphanies like “Nothing truly matters that you cannot find for free”; and worries about the effects (“If I put too much blood on the page”). At least back when he was paraphrasing Dickens and quoting Bob Seger in the same song, he was a distinctively clumsy writer.
Some people may discern a kind of heroism in a band of men who derive satisfaction from competently executing a series of time-honored routines as they strive for a common goal. Some people may need a serious smack upside the head. The future ain’t going anywhere, after all. But if it’s a real failure of imagination to reduce masculinity and rock’n’roll alike to grim determination in the face of existential uncertainty, it’s also nothing new — just fatalism-by-the-numbers. Not like there’s any other kind.