The Gaslight Anthem

Northern Michigan tends to be famous for its brutal winters, but come around here in the summer and you might just see some shit. And by “some shit,” I mean blisteringly hot and oppressively humid days where there’s not a cloud in the sky to shield you from the unrelenting sun. Such were the conditions the first time I ever heard Handwritten.

The Gaslight Anthem’s fourth full-length album leaked to the internet on the hottest day of the hottest summer I can remember in my hometown. I recall that because my parents had no air conditioning when I was growing up, which meant their house could turn into a downright sweatbox on days like this one. My shitty 10-pound college laptop tended to overheat real fast on the hot days, which made it hard to do work, or download music, or talk about that music with your fellow fanatics on So when Handwritten hit the web, I downloaded it quickly to my iPod and then just as quickly left the house for a beach three miles down the road.

My first listens of Handwritten were spent sitting at a picnic table less than 50 feet from Lake Michigan as evening settled in and a red-hot July sun sunk mercifully beyond the horizon. Every four or five songs I paused to plunge myself into the waves and cool myself off from the radiant heat that was still lingering thanks to sunbaked concrete and white-hot sand. By the time the album spun around to its last two tracks, a pair of glorious evening beauties called “Mae” and “National Anthem,” the temperature in the air was finally dissipating and a nighttime chill was creeping into the breeze. Somehow, a sweltering day had morphed into an unspeakably gorgeous summer night, and I got to experience it while watching the sunset over the water and waiting for kingdom come with the radio on.

I can’t recall many more idyllic first listens to an album than that one, and it’s still the first thing that pops into my mind whenever I hear Handwritten. “I’m in love with the way you’re in love with the night,” Brian Fallon sings on the title track. I always loved that line and how much it said without saying very much it all. It’s a lyric that conveys romance, and possibility, and youthful abandon, and all the magic a night can hold when you’re young and you’re up for anything. Hearing it for the first time on the cusp of a night just like the one described in the song, in the grips of full summer glory, was perfect. So was the album.

Sometimes, a record comes along and sweeps you away so completely that it’s the only thing you want to listen to for days, or weeks, or months at a time. Handwritten was one of those albums for me. Starting that evening on the beach, it became the soundtrack to my summer. Every windows-down drive to work in the sunshine, and every late-night drive home; every night out sharing drinks with my coworkers; every visit to the beach to beat the heat; every hot, hot night, trying to sleep in my way-too-hot childhood bedroom; drinking on the job and going home early. So much of that season is captured in these songs, and in the wild hope they encapsulate.

Handwritten rarely gets classified as the best Gaslight Anthem record. You’re unlikely to find many fans willing to rank it above The ’59 Sound, and most days I even prefer American Slang. But it was undoubtedly the Gaslight Anthem album that felt like the biggest deal in the moment. Coming into the summer of 2012, there was a decided feeling in the air that these guys were coming up on their time. “45,” the album’s first single, dropped on May 8, and it almost immediately felt like their biggest song ever. It was propulsive and massive, and had a sheen to it that the previous two albums had lacked. It sounded like The Gaslight Anthem were ready to graduate to playing some really, really big rooms.

“45” wasn’t a “hit” in terms of landing on mainstream pop radio. But it did end up being one of the 50 or so biggest rock songs of 2012, and it presaged an album cycle that would make The Gaslight Anthem one of the buzziest bands in America. Previously, they’d felt like underdogs. Even acknowledging the Springsteen endorsement they got during the ’59 Sound cycle, Gaslight always had an indie sensibility and a street rat charm about them on those earlier records. But here, they were so clearly “going for it.” They’d traded their indie label (Side One Dummy) for a major (Mercury, part of the Universal Music Group), and their indie producer (Ted Hutt) for a superstar (Brendan O’Brien, famous for his work with Pearl Jam and Springsteen). Even the liner notes of Handwritten felt fancy, with an essay penned by none other than High Fidelity author Nick Hornby.

Handwritten may have scanned to some fans as a sellout record, but I adored it right away. I loved how big the songs sounded: How frontman Brian Fallon’s voice and hooks seemed to have become larger than life in the two years since the shaggier, rougher-hewn Slang, or how Alex Rosamilia’s epic guitar riffs sounded like the word of god when they came pummeling out of the speaker of a speeding car. Songs like “Here Comes My Man” and “Keepsake” sounded like the biggest rock songs you’d ever heard, while something like the crystalline “Mae” seemed bound for stadium-at-dusk-with-lighters-up status. By this point, everyone had spent four years comparing The Gaslight Anthem to Bruce Springsteen, but Handwritten felt a lot closer to U2.

This album kept its hold on me that entire summer, and well into the fall. In September, my brother and I drove to Detroit on a Friday night to see the band play a show at St. Andrew’s Hall on their off night from opening up for Rise Against. With no opener and nothing but a few hours to kill, they ended up playing a setlist that spanned 29 songs, two encores, and the majority of the tracks from both Handwritten and The ’59 Sound – plus a fair bit of Sink or Swim, a few gems each from American Slang and Senor and the Queen, and a couple of covers. It was one of the greatest shows I’d ever seen, and it made me think I’d just glimpsed rock ‘n’ roll’s future, just like Jon Landau felt the first time he took in a Springsteen show.

The promise of the Handwritten era felt so gilded and assured that I figured the next time I saw The Gaslight Anthem would be in an arena or a stadium, after they blew the fuck up to the rest of the world. Things didn’t quite work out like that. When the band returned two years later with Get Hurt, they sounded exhausted, burnt out, and broken. The glow of possibility that had surrounded “45” and everything that came after it gave way to tracks like “Get Hurt” and “Dark Places,” legitimately upsetting songs where Fallon sounded like he was ready to go back on every hopeful thing he’d ever sung about before. “I think I’m gonna move to California,” he stated on the former, ready to abandon the Jersey roots that had always been central to his identity and his sound. “We were living proof,” he bellowed on the latter; “One by one, we faded away.” It didn’t sound like Brian had such great expectations anymore.

For a long time, listening back to Handwritten felt bittersweet to me. On the one hand, it was a window back to the last summer of my youth, and to all the bountiful beauty that hot, reckless season entailed. But it was also now filled with ghosts and might-have-beens. This record that I had been so sure would be the big break for one of my favorite bands now looked like their clear peak, their big grand apex before the fall. When I’d listen to songs like “45” or “Howl,” these anthems about the promise of rock ‘n’ roll, I had to wonder if the seeds for Gaslight’s burnout were already sown here, or if this album had for some reason proven to be their Icarus moment, a flight of ambition and audacity that took them a little too close to the sun. In particular, the question Fallon asks on “Howl” felt weirdly haunting in retrospect: “Oh radio/Do you believe there’s still some magic left somewhere inside our souls?” Get Hurt seemed to provide the belated answer: No.

The nice thing about time and circumstance is that, while they can twist something bright and beautiful and make it bittersweet and melancholy, they can also twist it back. And it turns out the story of Handwritten and of The Gaslight Anthem is still being, well…written. This spring, when the news broke that Gaslight were reuniting – not just for a string of album anniversary dates, but to be a band again and to make new music together once more – it felt like someone righting a wrong in my own musical history. Perhaps the best part of all was the press photo of the band and how it caught Brian Fallon with a wide grin plastered on his face, his elation palpable even through the camera lens. Fittingly, when the reunited Gaslight played their first show back, it was “Howl” that served as the big, effusive kickoff. Maybe there is still some magic left somewhere inside our souls after all. Maybe this old radio’s still got a few lessons left to teach. Maybe we should hold on to those great, great expectations a little longer.

I’m ready to find out.