If The Gaslight Anthem was ever thinking of evolving, now would be a good time. The final two songs on the band’s last album, 2010’s American Slang, hinted that frontman Brian Fallon was willing to pull punches as well as pump fists. Elsie, the 2011 debut by his downbeat side project, The Horrible Crowes, drove that hint home. That leaves The Gaslight Anthem’s new album, Handwritten, in a pivotal position: Keep with the gritty sing-alongs and poignant slow-burners, or modulate that populism into subtler forms? On Handwritten, Fallon clearly has the will to do the latter, even if he doesn’t always find the way.
Not that Handwritten lacks in anthems. True to form, The Gaslight Anthem delivers rousing slabs of instantly classic pop-rock (“45,” “Desire”), heartbreak-fueled power-balladry (“Too Much Blood”), and even a closing song bombastically named “National Anthem” that winds up being an acoustic folk dirge awash in strings and Fallon’s bittersweet reassurance to “Take it easy, baby / It ain’t over yet.” Even at its gentlest, the production is crisp and sharp, unburdened by the heavy reverb of past releases. That’s not to say Handwritten doesn’t get bogged down in spots. Near the disc’s middle, “Mulholland Drive” and “Keepsake” keep time but little else, although the latter does manage to evoke a swampy, Lucero-esque swagger that almost makes up for its listlessness.
If there’s one genre where The Gaslight Anthem has stepped forward—and backward—it’s toward classic rock. There’s still a foundation of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty at the root of the group’s ringing hooks and gruff verse. But Fallon also summons a Rod Stewart rasp in “Too Much Blood,” not to mention a soulful Thin Lizzy vibe in the “oh-sha-la-la” chorus of “Here Comes My Man.” He wears both well. His vocals are more supple and organic than ever, and his lyrics have begun to flow less forcefully, which is a good thing. There’s a conversational ease to lines like “Does anything still move you / since you’re educated now?” from “Howl”—a quality that Fallon once strained to maintain. And in the stomping “Biloxi Parish,” he sings of a place that no longer exists, evoking an aura of ghosts and history without pushing the poetry.
Of its flat-out rockers, Handwritten kicks most on its title track. Built out of sinew and spit teeth, the song is the disc’s catchiest—but it’s also its most tender. “Did you want to drive without a word in between / I can understand, you need a minute to breathe,” sings Fallon in his softest growl, “I’m in love with the way you’re in love with the night / And it travels from heart to limb to pen.” His self-consciousness as a songwriter—and the way he works that awareness into song—has always been one of Gaslight Anthem’s major strengths, and one of its minor weaknesses. On Handwritten, his lyrics have finally settled into a perfect spot between craft and catharsis. And the music isn’t far behind.