The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten

I’m always excited when a new Gaslight Anthem album comes out. American Slang was one of my favorite records the year it came out, as was The 59 Sound before it. So I had high hopes for Handwritten, their debut on Mercury Records.

Then I found out Brenden O’Brien was producing it.

Brenden O’Brien is the guy behind several big-name records from the past fifteen or twenty years, including Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising and the Wallflowers’ Rebel, Sweetheart. And while I really enjoy both of those records, O’Brien has a tendency to make the production of all the records he does sound the same. They’re bright, shiny rock records, with strummed acoustics, chiming and chugging electric guitars, and deep drums.

And really, what we get here isn’t exactly bad: the band are all excellent musicians, and there’s definitely craft at work in these songs. But the writing doesn’t seem as sharp, the choruses don’t seem as catchy, and everything sounds smoothed out and rather murky. It’s glossy, arena-style production, and the already-weak songs suffer because of it.

It’s odd that everything ends up sounding so same-y, because O’Brien helps the band bring in some new instrumentation to fill out their sound. There’s organs and pianos in several songs, and many feature acoustic guitars more prominently (granted, the band’s used acoustics before, but never quite this much).

There are some decent songs here. “Here Comes My Man” is a ’60s girl-group song that swings and rocks all at once; “Keepsake” is standard Gaslight Anthem, but stronger than much of the other material on the album. “Howl” is pretty solid, and “National Anthem” shows quite a bit of promising growth for the band.

The bad, though, is mostly just bland and uninspired. “Handwritten” is standard fare for the band, but doesn’t do anything particularly well. Several of these songs – “Handwritten” chief among them – feel like leftovers from other albums, lesser versions of songs we’ve already heard.

Ultimately, Handwritten is a bit of a letdown, not because it’s bad but because it’s not as good as it could be. This is an album that doesn’t live up to the promise of its predecessors. Hopefully they’ll turn it around for the next album.

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