When underground rock bands sign to major labels, they get broken. Either the pricey gloss and polish slapped on by Bruce Springsteen’s producer smothers and suffocates the gritty vivacity that made them brilliant in the first place, or it unearths an air-punching stadium band lurking beneath the garage grime. New Jersey rockers The Gaslight Anthem are in the latter camp.
For all singer Brian Fallon’s dabblings in Tom Waits melancholia on his recent side-project The Horrible Crowes, anyone who saw him co-hollering No Surrender with Springsteen at Glastonbury 2009 saw the crowning of the next generation of sawdust-rock hero.
Sure enough, TGA’s fourth album, Handwritten – their first for Mercury – makes good on the anthemic promise of their 2008 breakthrough The ’59 Sound and its 2010 follow-up American Slang. Producer Brendan O’Brien bolsters the post-emo populism of their earlier albums with pumped-up Red Rocks bombast and Fallon making every effort to bawl his lungs into a convulsing mess on the production room window.
It’s a mature, propulsive trammel of grunge-ravaged roadster rock’n’roll that transcends the romantic ephemera of teenage Americana that dominated previous albums and wrestles with more visceral emotional gristle. The dusty pound of Mulholland Drive throbs with a murderous obsession over an ex-lover that makes it a freeway-rock sister piece to the Lynch movie: ‘_With my hands around your neck I felt the pounding of your heart’. _The railroad rattle of Desire belies some deep battle-of-the-sexes philosophising, while the title track suggests Fallon’s spewing these agonies now ‘to ease the loss of youth’.
It’s a teeth-gritted process, this emotional auto-autopsy. Come the dark, bluesy Too Much Blood. Fallon’s even worried he’s splaying himself too wide here: ‘What can I keep for myself if I tell you my hell?/What will be left to take to my grave?/If I put too much blood on the page’. Handwritten may be raw and reflective enough to be TGA’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town but it’s not despondent enough to be their Nebraska.
Howl and lead single 45 spark and crackle like thunder-strikes and even when the album wears its influences stapled to its forehead – Keepsake simply is Pearl Jam and closing ballad National Anthem couldn’t be more I’m On Fire if it was stalking posh women in a Thunderbird – it remains rigorously modern rock’n’roll. It’ll break them. Big.