The Gaslight Anthem
With tattoos on their arms and Springsteen on their minds, the boys in Gaslight Anthem are New Jersey’s newest blue-collar heroes. They write anthems for a generation of adults raised on punk rock and ‘80s hair metal, and their best songs bridge the gap between the New Jersey Turnpike and the open heartland.
On “Handwritten,” the band’s fourth album, frontman Bruce Fallon husks and huffs his way through tunes about regret, young love and burned-out hometowns. His voice is a gritty, sandpapery thing, shaped by cigarettes and alcohol rather than singing lessons. Even during this album’s most familiar-sounding moments — the moments where the Gaslight Anthem sound as thought they’re attempting a step-by-step recreation of the E Street shuffle — he’s a distinctive presence, the most unique part of a record steeped in pastiche and hero worship.
The whole thing is set to a soundtrack of gleaming guitar riffs and fist-pumping melodies. The tempos are fast, the songs are short and virtually every track features a moment where the entire band sings a monosyllabic word like “hey!” or “whoa!” in unison. Just like Mr. Springsteen’s own work, it’s hard to tell which parts are cheesy and which parts are genuinely epic — but it’s also tempting to forgive a few cornball verses if the chorus is good enough.
“We work our fingers down to dust, then we wait for kingdom come with the radio on,” Mr. Fallon sings in “Mae.” Later, during the acoustic “National Anthem,” he apologizes to a lover who has become disenchanted with the life he’s given her. “She just screams how I promised her more than this,” he acknowledges before segueing into his best “Atlantic City” impression by adding, “Take it easy, baby; it ain’t over yet.”
Does it do these guys a disservice to continually bring up the Boss, an artist of such magnitude that all similar musicians are dwarfed by comparison? Maybe. Theirs is a slightly different version of the Jersey sound, one that relies on speed more than groove, on grit more than polish, on guitar breaks more than sax solos.
Still, under the supervision of producer Brendan O’Brien, a studio vet who worked on four of Mr. Springsteen’s last six albums, “Handwritten” purposefully takes up residence in the darkness of the edge of town, where the Boss’ shadow looms large. The Gaslight Anthem seem to like it there.
Michael Angelakos, the man behind Passion Pit’s musical mishmash, is having a tough time. He spent some time in a New York mental hospital earlier this year, and now that he’s out, the guy can’t seem to stop writing autobiographical tunes about alcoholism, heartbreak and financial troubles, three topics that figure heavily on this sophomore album.
Look past the sad-sack lyrics, though, and “Gossamer” is a neon-colored swirl of electronica, pop, dance and late-night club music. Mr. Angelakos’ songs are drenched in layers of keyboards and electronic percussion, and his melodies float above the mix like balloons, willing to fly off in the most unexpected directions with each shift of atmosphere. He’s a Top 40 pop singer one minute and a Bee Gees-influenced soft rock crooner the next, with a high, piercing falsetto to match.
The push-and-pull between dark subject matter and bright sounds serves “Gossamer” well. A concerned friend pours Mr. Angelakos’ drink down the sink during “Constant Conversations,” an otherwise smooth neo-soul song, and “Where We Belong” balances its giddy, sky-high melodies with lyrics such as, “It’s hard to keep living when your heart weighs about a million pounds.” Even the most miserable songs feel therapeutic, as though the singer’s psychiatrist told him exorcise his demons by setting them to music.
Like a combination of Prince, Phoenix and R. Kelly, “Gossamer” is a dance album for those who care about more than moving their feet. The songs soar and soothe, targeting the listener’s brain as much as the body. The tempos may be uniformly fast, but there’s more to “Gossamer” than speed and sparkle.