Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Gaslight Anthem: One More Time

Last week I received an e-mail from my friend Peter Carlin.

Hey, I know Gaslight Anthem isn't your kinda thing, which is of course fine & dandy, you can't like everything. But I have been listening to the new one non-stop, and have some thoughts. How'd you feel about posting it on Burning Wood? I'll probably put it on my website, too, but I thought it'd be fun to have a crack at your cool crowd.

Peter's written books on Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney and is about to drop his highly anticipated book on Bruce Springsteen. He has also sent me some fabulous e-mails about McCartney's solo work that opened both ears and mind to some fabulous music I had spent too many years dismissing, so I was excited by the prospect of possibly becoming a bit more accepting of a band that has left me cold.

Here's Peter:

The first moments of “Handwritten,” the title track to Gaslight Anthem’s fourth album, tell you a lot about the band’s sound and spirit, and everything you need to know about  Brian Fallon’s vision of what he does, and why it can be so compelling.

“Pull it out! Turn it up! What’s your favorite song?/That’s mine, I’ve been crying to it since I was young.”

The band’s slamming behind him, the drums pounding, the lead guitar strung with razor wire. You can hear the Replacements in there. And the Clash.  And trace elements of every serious rock ‘n’ roll band whose records ever played within earshot of these tattooed New Jersey boys.

Fallon’s voice, all raw flesh, cigarette smoke and tough breaks, seethes with belief. He’s got a hard luck past, but also an overwhelming faith that two guitars, bass and drums can create a sound force powerful enough to define a life, and maybe even save it.

Is that crazy talk? Aggressive naivete wrapped up in a muscle car? Could be, I suppose. But music has been a part of my life ever since I can remember being alive. I don’t dismiss friends whose record collections suck, but I have to admit, it still kinda matters. When I climbed into one girl’s car for the first time one night in 1988 I was so impressed with her tapes (Steve Earle! Yo La Tengo!) I ended up marrying her.  

So tell me, what’s your favorite song? And if you grew up loving, even needing, music as intensely as Fallon did, you may not be able to imagine a more soul-revealing question.

“I know there’s someone out there feeling just like I feel/I know they’re waiting up, I know they’re waiting to heal/And I’ve been holding my breath - are you holding your breath?”

I totally am. I love this record. I love Gaslight Anthem. I love their reverence for their art and for their belief that a song can in fact illuminate, or even save, your life.

And if that resonates with you, if you can remember a moment when a new song or a new band symbolized a turning point in your life, or even just a short moment of clarity, you really ought to give “Handwritten” and Handwritten a spin.

The thing kicks off with the full-tilt “45,” a break-up song built around a classicist’s music metaphor (“And all my friends say/Hey, hey, turn the record over/I’ll see ya on the flipside...”) and the wired intensity of “Tim”/”Pleased To Meet Me”-era Replacements. Then it’s straight into the even more intense title track, then the mid-tempo “Here Comes My Man,” which opens like a lost Byrds song, pivots back to the GA’s favoredBang-Bang-Bang-Bang pace then shifts down to a romantic “Ooh, sha la la” chorus before circling back to the mighty bang-bang. The band sounds wild, but tight (Fallon, Alex Levine, Benny Horowitz and Alex Rosamilia really, really know how to play rock ‘n’ roll), a kind of audio reflection of Fallon's declarations of hell-or-high-water commitment. "I'll be with you through the dark," he pledges in "Biloxi Parish." "And who else can say that about you, baby?" Possibly the narrator of "Mulholland Drive" ("Who came to bring back your dignity, baby?....Whoa, and I'd just die if you ever took your love away....")

Handwritten works this same vein, more or less, from song to song. Love comes in showers of fire and molten rock, then collapses like tectonic plates letting go. The band goes at it double-time and triple-loud. Even more than the band's two previous albums, this one lacks for stylistic diversity. And even the earlier ones were most successful in full-throttle mode. As my rock critic pal Ryan White observed, “They do one thing, but they do it really, really well." And yet Fallon's work on the Horrible Crowes album last year mostly took things at a whisper, so here's hoping he finds a way to open up GA's sound.

In fact,  the album’s last song, “National Anthem,” reveals him doing just that. Here, the flames recede, a fingerpicked acoustic guitar sets the pace and appealingly understated strings add just a touch of a nighttime breeze.  The mood is elegiac, the ballad aimed at a girl whose sorrows are as big as the nation itself. Possibly because he's not singing to a girl, as much as to the mainstream culture they've ridden into this rocky moment we're all navigating. If all of Handwritten is intended as a search for love, soul and commitment, its final song bids farewell to a job that has grown all but impossible in this digitized, disconnected age:

 “And everybody, lately, is living up in space/Flying through transmissions on invisible airwaves/With everything discovered just waiting to be known.” 

Ever the man of faith, Fallon looks past the microchips and wires to fear a world where the everything-all-the-time culture drains the poetry, and essential mystery, from life.

“What’s left for God to teach from his throne?/And who will forgive us when He’s gone?”

I’m not religious by any stretch, but there's something lovely in the depth of the singer's faith. Because it's not reserved solely for the deity in the sky. The earlier albums -- particularly American Slang and The '59 Sound -- come densely populated with modern-day idols and pop song prophets. Song after song name-checks the great icons in Fallon's universe: MIles Davis, Elvis Presley, Tom Petty, Joe Strummer, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding pop up in tune after tune. Snatches of old lyrics turn up in others, mostly as straight-up homages. None more striking, though, than the moment in “High Lonesome” (on ’59 Sound) when Fallon tosses in a line of Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire.: “Well, at night I wake up with the sheets soaking wet...' A ballsy move by any stretch, but wait, because there's more: "...That’s a pretty good song, baby, you know the rest/Baby,you know the rest.”  He knows Springsteen's voice is in her head, too. Bruce, Miles, Elvis, Strummer: The voices of authority you turn to when you can't find them closer at hand.

My favorite song on this record dispenses with the heroes and anthems to pursue something that I think explains a lot about Fallon's commitment to his heroes, and to the very idea of commitment itself. Bear in mind, though, that I don’t know the guy and haven’t read any stories about him that describe his early life in any detail. But the lyrics in “Keepsake” tell a shattering tale in the voice of a man reaching out to the father who abandoned his family before the boy was old enough to understand who the old man was. Sung over a vaguely martial rhythm (the harmonica evokes a hint of the Civil War), the lyric makes clear that he doesn’t expect to gain much from the experience -- “I’m only sniffing out blood/Just a little taste of where I came from.” But while he spares the old man the blame he deserves, Fallon’s narrator is unrelenting when it comes to describing the anguish an abandoned boy can feel. The devastation of his older brothers, the shadow of the non-existent father (“What we could have had if you’d had a part in my life”) and the emotional chill that never quite evaporates. “I just want to love someone who has the same blood.”

Some people don’t get that chance. And when you miss that vital connection it's very possible to spend the rest of your life contemplating the emptiness it left behind. Some people fill it with alcohol or drugs. Others steer towards the money and power. But some people find something else. Something fanciful enough to blow in on the breeze, but powerful enough to stir your soul. If it moves you that much, you might run in that direction until you feel the bass in your feet and the melody blowing back your hair. You could be hearing anything. A promise, a philosophy, a polka. But listen closely --  it might be your favorite song.


buzzbabyjesus said...

I went to Youtube and experienced all of the song "Handwritten". I hear a little of the Replacements, Clash, and Bruce, but I also hear Soul Asylum, and about a million other faceless cut-out cd's I bought from Sal between 1994-1996. The aftermath of Nirvana.
I hated the song, and the video didn't help. It is banal, and derivative. It made me mad.
But thanks for sharing. That's why I gave them a second chance.
Now I know. Case closed.

Jeff Matthews said...

Interesting how Gaslight Anthem divides the BW community. I agree with your friend Peter in large part, though perhaps not as much of an acolyte. I think there is a musical sameness across their body of work but I find much emotional resonance. To me, it's still the title track from "59 Sound" that makes me a GA fan - the poignancy of missing his friend's death and asking whether the dying friend heard his favorite song one last time or just the 'old gospel choir'.
Here's the video -

zan said...

I think what this post hits on the nose is the infectiousness of the enthusiasm both The Gaslight Anthem and their fans have for their heroes. I don't think I'll ever become the biggest Gaslight Anthem fan in the world, but I'm in love with how in love people are with this band, and how in love the GA are with their predecessors. It's a wonderful reminder of what it's like to fall in love with something/someone. To open your heart/ears/mind that way. As Peter says: "You could be hearing anything. A promise, a philosophy, a polka. But listen closely -- it might be your favorite song."

If you're not feeling it, fine. But it sure is pretty cool to stand by and watch other people feel it, isn't it?

(And for what it's worth, as soon as someone pointed out how Westerbergian these songs are, I've been listening with an entirely new appreciation. I really think these guys are growing on me the more I listen.)

Peter Ames Carlin said...

Thanks for the comments. Zan -- I'm glad you picked up on the belief thing. What makes the GA so riveting to me is that Fallon, et. al so clearly believe in every note they play. Their music doesn't sound anything like Springsteen (apart from the bells on "American Slang"'s title track), but the one thing Fallon does take from Bruce is that full-bodied immersion into his songs and stories. It's easy to ape that kind of pose, less easy to make it fly. Fallon has a major-league talent for melody, but his songs are so deeply rooted they don't lost their purchase on the earth.

That's what makes the difference for me. When I listen to those songs I hear the sound of hearts, gristle and bone. It moves me.