Brian Fallon’s favorite Gaslight Anthem album ‘Handwritten’ turns 10 – “Anything was possible”
There’s an urban legend that says the Grateful Dead never played the same set twice. That’s quite the impressive feat. Or, at least, it would be if it were true. With the band’s storied career stretching across three decades and more than 20 studio albums, empirical data does appear to lend some credibility to the legend. However, the devil is truly in the details, and a handful of stage schedule double-ups are known to exist. One can learn a great deal about an artist by looking at their setlist, and there’s a compelling argument to make for mixing things up and subverting audience expectations.
After returning to “full-time status” earlier this year, New Brunswick institution The Gaslight Anthem surprised devoted fans last month by turning what was originally billed as a make-up date for one of frontman Brian Fallon’s canceled solo acoustic sets into an impromptu reunion show—their first since the group’s brief 2018 tour celebrating their landmark sophomore record, 2008's The ’59 Sound. In front of 300 attendees at Crossroads in Garwood, New Jersey, the quartet—rounded out by lead guitarist Alex Rosamilia, bassist Alex Levine, and drummer Benny Horowitz—roared through eighteen tracks that pulled liberally from their back catalogue, generating full-throated sing-a-longs and ear-to-ear smiles all around.
Yet much like the Grateful Dead anecdote above, sifting through the group’s choice of songs yields curious observations of where this newly revitalized Gaslight Anthem of 2022 find themselves. Entries from American Slang (2010) and Sink or Swim (2007) took a few slots, while the fan-favorite Señor and the Queen EP (2008) and a wild Nirvana cover skated through with individual inclusions. Perhaps most notably, Get Hurt (2014), the band’s final (and somewhat divisive) release before their indefinite hiatus in 2015—described in a particularly savage Pitchfork review as the sound of “a band with the heart of a Dodge Challenger” and the “plasticine production of a Kia”—received only a single cursory mention. Of the five studio albums on offer, Handwritten (2012) and The ’59 Sound featured most prominently in their Crossroads set, landing five and six tracks, respectively.
All of this close reading begs the question: what’s driving the sudden love and appreciation for Handwritten? Could it be the tenth anniversary of the group’s moderately well-received fourth studio album and major-label debut for Mercury Records? The answer, according to Fallon, is actually rather simple and achingly sentimental. It’s the one album in the Gaslight discography that best captures the moment when the quartet were able to combine much-needed solitude with unfettered creativity.
“Handwritten is my favorite record from all the records,” Fallon says over the phone on a Wednesday evening, in the middle of unboxing a new pair of Dinosaur Jr. shoes, apologizing as his dog excitedly slams around in the background. “We had just gone away to Nashville to go record with Brendan O’Brien and we were alone, no one was bothering us. There was no one there, it was just the four or five of us, and I remember just being so happy to not be in an area that I knew. No managers, no girlfriends, no wives—nothing.”
Following their runaway success and rapid ascent in the late ‘00s—including enviable stage-time with long-time influence Bruce Springsteen—being hailed as ‘the saviors of rock ‘n’ roll’ by an overly enthusiastic music press began to take its toll on the group. “I’m [the] kind of person who needs time alone to think and I had that time during Handwritten,” Fallon explains. “It felt like such a break because it was after The ‘59 Sound, American Slang and all this hype, where it felt like everybody was surrounding us all the time. To be able to just stop and record a record for a month in Nashville—which is a much slower moving place than New York or New Jersey—it felt like we didn’t know anybody. It felt like we were alone in the woods, and anything was possible.”
For as long as I can remember, people have always described me as an ‘old soul’. As a child, that’s not something you tend to dwell on too much, but as I begrudgingly move through my thirties, it’s steadily become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When it comes to music, my childhood was full of anachronism, the result of an Australian mother permanently fixated on ‘70s disco and a hard-working Midwestern father who only had two enjoyable modes: Garth Brooks or Tim McGraw. It wasn’t until my post-Y2K adolescence that the gravitational pull of youthful rebellion eventually led to the harsh allure of hardcore, punk and metal. And yet, some of my fondest memories revolve around the home-cooked smell of a Sunday breakfast with Born in the U.S.A. loudly spinning on the turntable.
Nostalgia is a powerful thing and The Gaslight Anthem, quite intentionally, wield it like a weapon. Across much of their early material, there’s a distinct melancholic yearning for times long past, places ventured, people known. And yet, evoking this idealized version of what came before also, by necessity, comes with a degree of self-awareness. “I’m romanticizing this thing I wasn’t there for. It probably sucked in the ‘50s for Bette Davis making movies. I’m sure it was horrible,” Fallon admits. “My Mom would say, ‘We used to get under our desks. We thought they were gonna bomb us, and we’re gonna blow up.’ That doesn’t sound fun at all, but in my head, that’s not what it’s like. In my head, there’s Elvis Presley, and The Beatles are about to come out.” While The ’59 Sound overflows with assorted retro signifiers—Miles Davis, high-top sneakers, Audrey Hepburn, sailor tattoos, dream girl stand-ins (Maria, Jane, Gail, Anna, etc.)—follow-up American Slang punctuates Fallon’s feelings of loss with the dangers of perpetually looking back (“Don’t sing me your songs about the good times/ Those days are gone, and you should just let them go”).
It’s hardly surprising then that Handwritten kicks off with a powerful ode to moving on. “There’re a few songs in my writing experience that are special, where, when they came out, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is really something else.’ And that was one of them.” On album opener “45,” the New Jersey quartet come together in a perfect synthesis, yielding a foot-to-the-floor barnburner driven by Rosamilia’s bouncy lead guitar line and Fallon’s impeccable chorus. Discarding the need for cloaking his lyrics in abstracted references, Fallon’s narrative thrust instead becomes a deeply personal one. “It was just me talking to myself. I was carrying around this thing for a long time, and that sucks,” he explains. “So I thought, ‘Alright, well, what if you just let it go? Just drop it. Don’t think about it anymore. You stop it.’ And then you realize that there’s a whole other life without this baggage.” As a metaphor for perseverance, the anthemic track is resolutely universal in its relatability. Combined with an irresistible hook, it’s also a fierce contender for one of the group’s best-ever performances. Even Fallon’s mother is a fan (“She really likes the rockers”).
More so than any record in their discography, Handwritten is where the band’s heartland romanticism and punk rock Americana collide. “Here Comes My Man” and the Ramones-inspired “Howl” swing and sway with sha-la-la’s and stadium-ready chants. Slow-burn numbers like “Keepsake” and album standout “Mae” echo the blues-inflected folk Fallon had previously explored on Elsie, the 2011 debut album from his side project duo The Horrible Crowes. Elsewhere, “Biloxi Parish” finds Horowitz and Levine trading playful rhythms against Rosamilia’s wailing guitar, while “Too Much Blood” pushes Fallon’s gravelly register to new, warbling heights.
On the album’s plaintive title track, the yearning to belong takes center stage. “When I was writing that song, I was thinking about how we’ve connected to this community of people [where] the people who like The Gaslight Anthem are very much like the people in The Gaslight Anthem,” Fallon says. “I was thinking about these people and how they come to the show; they’ve worked all week; they bought their tickets. Maybe they’ve looked forward to it for months, or they’ve gotten sitters, and it’s this big thing in their life.” To be an artist and performer is to be a willing participant in this nightly rite of passage, a conduit for communal desire and catharsis. For Fallon, each line becomes an earnest declaration of this intent, painstakingly delivered with tender love and care; his “Pages bleed forgiveness/ Every word handwritten.”
When I first saw The Gaslight Anthem, they had packed out a shitty dive bar in Brisbane called Rosies in early 2008, right before The ’59 Sound pushed them into the punk rock stratosphere. It was the type of bar where they never cleaned the keg lines and the threat of a fire-code violation hung over the venue like a dark cloud. Still, the energy in the room that night was electric, as members of other bands stood guard on side-of-stage during the Gaslight set, a collection of tattooed sentries fighting a losing battle against waves of sweaty punters and eager stage divers. The next time I managed to catch the band on tour, only three short years later in 2011, they were playing festival slots to thousands alongside Pennywise and Social Distortion, with Fallon howling his wild heart out, clad in a trademark white t-shirt, just like their song encouraged (blue jeans regrettably switched out for black).
More than a decade on, when discussing the band’s recent reunion, Fallon describes wanting to return the band to their idealized state, a quest for greatness with the added benefit of hindsight. “There were times during Sink or Swim where I truly thought, ���This is great.’ We were playing these tiny shows, and, in my head, I was like, ‘We’re the greatest band in the world.’ That’s how it felt,” Fallon reveals with distinct fondness. Responding to whether this restorative pursuit might signify the group is embracing the nostalgia kick that permeates their back catalogue, his answer is more practical than wistful. “Whenever it’s working and functioning, I pretty much think it’s great.” For this reason, among many others, Handwritten stands out as the culmination of their whirlwind rise. “It was the first record where I felt like it was the thing we were working to for so long, like that was the defining record of the band for that time.”
Returning to their Crossroads set and its noticeable slant towards Handwritten material, Fallon stresses that such late-round appreciation ultimately bodes well for The Gaslight Anthem’s future. “Some people are like, ‘I love Handwritten.’ But some people say that for every record now. They’re starting some sort of retroactive effect, where people who have no idea what Sink or Swim is are like, ‘Get Hurt is my favorite record.’ Which is pretty crazy,” Fallon says with a wry laugh. “We’re starting to have a career arc, and I think that’s cool because that’s what keeps things having a new life. They don’t die away, and you get new generations coming in and discovering them.”
Much like the outro coda on melancholic album closer “National Anthem” (“Whatever gets you through the night”), Fallon & Co are just thankful to be back in business and living in the moment, fulfilling needs wherever they can. “If we get to be one of those bands where they have a career long enough that you can come in at the midpoint or the late point or early, and it doesn’t matter—there’s still something there for you—I think that’s real success.”
Watch and listen to videos for select tracks from Handwritten, with additional commentary from Fallon on the details behind each song:
“I remember writing that song and then just being like, ‘Alright, I wrote two minutes. I don’t think it has a chorus, but it has this really catchy part and that’s it.’ And then it like took on a life of its own, where we would go to festivals, and it would be all these people who didn’t really know the band. You could sing along right away, even if you’ve never heard the band before. Then this hockey team, the Devils from New Jersey, started using it as their goal song. Their goal song used to be that White Stripes one, ‘Seven Nation Army,’ and ours kicked it out. So, I was pretty happy with that. And now every time they score a goal, it’s singing the chorus of ‘Howl,’ which I think is hilarious and awesome.”
“When I was writing that song, I was watching the movie at the same time. I was inspired by the movie and how you’re not really sure whether it’s a dream or real. Part of that song is about the mythological state of Hollywood, where there’s L.A., there’s what I’m seeing directly—the buildings, the streets, what’s in front of me—and then there’s the Hollywood of the movies and everything that’s happened there since the 1920s. Just the insanity that is the town of Los Angeles. When you go back and read about the people who moved there and gave up everything to be famous, then they died and there’s all these horrible things. My own romanticism of Hollywood sort of made it like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on here?’”
“Too Much Blood”
“I went to see Chris Cornell play solo in my hometown in Red Bank, and it blew my mind how he was singing. People would always say about [The Gaslight Anthem], ‘You’re a great band,’ or ‘You’re a great lyricist,’ or ‘You’re a great whatever.’ But no one ever was like, ‘You’re a great singer.’ Brendan [O’Brien] really drilled that. He’d walk by and be like, ‘I just want to tell you, you’re a great singer.’ It was probably like some Jedi mind trick that producers do, but he would really encourage me. We’d do these takes and he’d be like, ‘Just sing. Sing your heart out and see what comes out. Go for it. We’ll erase it. No one will ever hear it if it’s not good.’ So on that record, I just let it out. And then, ever since, I was like, ‘Well, I can do this.’”
“I was writing it on tour. I had this idea and really just kept hammering at it every day. I was writing lyrics and trying to play the riffs for the first part, and it just took a while. But I knew that that song was going to be special. It was one of the first things I sent to Brendan [O’Brien], so I really wanted it to be aggressive, and I wanted it to be great. It was a song that I worked on a lot.”
“There were a couple of times where [it] happened, but ‘Mae’ and ‘45’ are two of the times where I’m like, ‘These are great songs.’ I feel like there were a lot of those moments on that record, and ‘45’ was probably the first from the really early batch of songs that went in there.”
The Gaslight Anthem's upcoming tour begins in September with support from Tigers Jaw on one leg and Jeff Rosenstock on the second. The run with Jeff Rosenstock concludes with a NJ show at PNC Bank Arts Center on October 8.
The Gaslight Anthem -- 2022 Tour Dates
SEPTEMBER 13 - Portland, OR - Roseland Theatre †
SEPTEMBER 14 - Seattle, WA - Showbox SODO †
SEPTEMBER 16 - San Francisco, CA - The Masonic †
SEPTEMBER 17 - Hollywood, CA - Hollywood Palladium †
SEPTEMBER 18 - Tempe, AZ - The Marquee Theatre †
SEPTEMBER 20 - Salt Lake City, UT - The Union †
SEPTEMBER 21 - Denver, CO - The Fillmore Auditorium †
SEPTEMBER 23 - Kansas City, MO - Midland Theatre †
SEPTEMBER 24 - Minneapolis, MN - The Fillmore Minneapolis †
SEPTEMBER 26 - Chicago, IL - Riviera Theatre †
SEPTEMBER 27 - McKees Rocks, PA - Roxian Theatre †
SEPTEMBER 30 - Niagara Falls, NY - The Rapids Theatre ^
OCTOBER 1 - Toronto, ONT - RBC Echo Beach ^
OCTOBER 2 - Detroit, MI - The Fillmore Detroit ^
OCTOBER 4 - Boston, MA - MGM Music Hall at Fenway ^
OCTOBER 5 - Washington, DC - The Anthem ^
OCTOBER 7 - Philadelphia, PA - The Met Philadelphia ^
OCTOBER 8 - Holmdel, NJ - PNC Bank Arts Center ^
† w/ special guest Tigers Jaw
^ w/ special guest Jeff Rosenstock