Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Gaslight Anthem - Handwritten


“[Nostalgia] can be generally defined as a state of inarticulate contempt for the present and fear of the future, in concert with a yearning for order, constancy, safety, and community—qualities that were last enjoyed in childhood and are retroactively imagined as gracing the whole of the time before one's birth.” - Luc Sante, Low Life

That quote probably tells you what this review is gonna be about and usually I don't bother writing too much about stuff I'm not into and I know the shit that you hate don't make you special, but really the shit that you love don't make you special either, and that applies doubly so if you love the Gaslight Anthem.

Their popularity in the punk scene might be an anathema to some, considering they play some of the most watered down safe softer-than-softer-rock and cite Dire Straits, the most terrible asinine bullshit middle-aged sanitised band ever, as a direct influence, but that's only if you forget that large parts of the punk scene are insecure people in their 20s trying to escape from the fact that they were insecure people in their teens by clinging on to some maturity liferaft that will give them an excuse to smoothly slide out of liking (or at least exclusively liking) music that sounds like a pneumatic drill into liking music that sounds like a marshmallow mortgage and then make fun of people who dare to continue to find interest in the clang and harshness of bands working a noise vein from a position that they believe to be morally right, but in fact is just the pisswarm warmspot of small-c conservatism. These bands have always existed and always will. As Steve Albini said about The Replacements: The Replacements Stink is a great record and their first couple of years they were an energetic and exciting band. Once they started getting serious about it it turned to cute lovey-dovey shit for sorority girls and Tom Petty fans and I stopped paying attention.

Not everyone has the energy to keep listening to bands that sound like the Dead Kennedys or Crazy Spirit, but not everyone has the gumption to just quit the music that meant so much to them for their formative period, (or if not quit then just simultaneously openly embrace something that the music they loved is explicitly set-up in counter to) so they find a way out through a band that might've started off in the punk scene but moved outside of it. Usually there's still pushback against these bands for 'selling out' from people who don't want to move on which I know is a pretty dumb concept and you can make the art you want to make, in the context you feel comfortable with and if you feel comfortable making pop-rock or college-rock or whatever they're calling middle-of-the-road music with guitars these days, like The Replacements, the Lemonheads and Against Me all found themselves doing, then go for it, but it's equally shitty to claim that the people who liked the art you made before are idiots for not following exactly the same personal arc as you did away from it. Also, there has been little such backlash against Gaslight from this probably because they played extremely radio-friendly punk rock in the first place. I don't expect the backlash to start here, but unlike The Replacements who still managed to imbue their MTV hits with a certain fuck-you attitude and the powerful desires and conflicts of youth, Gaslight Anthem and Handwritten is just a turgid sadwank over a time when you didn't have to deal with bands that actually tore at the world. You can make the art you want to make, like I said, and Gaslight have always done that, however, if you make shit art, especially that which taps cynically into a horrible appropriative myth of conformity and have ever in any small way been associated with a scene that explicitly rejects such antiseptic blandishments, someone's gonna eventually call you on making a regurgitative turgid sadwank of an artistic statement. That said, let's look at the songs!

Starting off with 45, the song they released earlier to trick people into thinking that they were gonna make something else that sounded like Sink or Swim or Senor and the Queen. It's a pretty catchy song to get things started with. It’s got a fun surfy solo around two-minutes in. That’s one more facet of decades old irrelevant Americana checked off the list, I guess. It’s a wistful song about listening to records. Basically American Steel’s Old Croy Road if that song had it’s screaming heart ripped out and replaced with a undercooked po-faced gurn.

Then we move on to the title track. Which is a a wistful song about listening to records that romanticises another analogue communication form because goodness knows things were better in the past when everything was all sepia-toned and whatever. It’s got a gospelly hum in the background around three-minutes in. That’s one more facet of decades old irrelevant Americana checked off the list, I guess.

Next up is Here Comes My Man. Seger? I barely know ‘er! Oh wait, BOB Seger? Yes, I am intimately familiar with his life’s work. Just listen to this record if you don’t believe me! As for the title, yeah, we all know who Lou Reed is, Brian.

Moving on to Mulholland Drive. and, yeah, we all know who David Lynch is, Brian. I’m really really not opposed to reference as a technique in art and I and every writer I know uses it pretty much all the fucking time but Brian Fallon seems to deal solely in the most obvious things that anyone who thinks they’re plugged in to some mainstream oh-we’re-not-mainstream-we’re-rock-and-roll-rebels view of an American artistic narrative will pick-up on. You can be into that if you want but I find it unbearably boring and it’s always accompanied by the mephitic air of rockist self-regard as the anointed defenders of TRUE MUSIC and TRUE CULTURE, and fuck that. They may have called their last album American Slang, but they wouldn't be caught dead using any contemporary slang, preferring the static categorised vocabulary of the quickly-retreating past rather than the livewire mutability of fresh language.

He’s almost entirely unstransformative in his reference too, it’s just the warmth of recognising something familiar, which is the sort of thing people wrongly accuse stuff like Community of where that builds in meta-reference into character moments and twists the structures of these things we know into fresh excitement. This is just HEY AREN’T ALL THE THINGS EVERYONE SAYS ARE GREAT GREAT! It’s like a hip-hop song giving a shout out to 2pac or Biggie, or that terrible Glasvegas song where it bites the piano from Moonlight Sonata in lieu of attempting to construct something genuinely moving by itself. The Hold Steady is Community. Brian Fallon is like the Big Bang Theory for people who subscribe to Rolling Stone.

Also, in this track, the lyrics tell us that THE RADIO IS ON which is Brian Fallon’s shortcut to telling you we’re in that ineffable American never-was where everyone feels safe in the grasp of the tedious whiteboy monoculture and everything makes sense and the airwaves chug along to PROPER music not all that nasty hippity-hop and pop music or talk radio or any of the things that actually are on the radio a lot of the time. The Gaslight Anthem is the Newsroom for people who subscribe to Q Magazine.

Then we have Keepsake, which might be about murdering a woman and dumping her body in the river, but it’s like he wrote that song then fudged it because he wanted to be all nasty and honest like Johnny Cash or Nick Cave but didn’t want his mummy to think he’s not a nice boy. It’s like Nick Cave if you took away all the gothic menace and minatory artistry. Did they have harmonica on any of their older songs? If not that’s another PROPER HEARTLAND ROCK BAND checklist tick.

Too Much Blood opens with the line: “Are you scared this sounds familiar?” More like sadly resigned, Brian. This is a real plodder. He worries about putting too much blood on the page. He put too much shit in my ears. He also talks about bleeding a lot on this record, which is fine I guess, if you like trite metaphors that have been worn into the ground by around 8 trillion other people all convinced of THEIR ULTIMATE PAIN. I guess maybe the most interesting thing about the Gaslight Anthem is that there's the real authenticity/inauthenticity tension going on. He constantly talks about how much he's opening himself up, but then a shitload of the songs seem to be character songs, and the band itself is so blatant a shot at saying "WE ARE SERIOUS ROCK AND ROLL PEOPLE!" that it seems kinda goofy and adorable at times, like a five year old wearing their parents clothes. Sometimes you think they're deliberately aware of this and then you realise that it's not cynical, it's just Brian Fallon really is too bad of a lyricist to think of a line that isn't an obvious bleeding metaphor followed by a hey-look-at-this shout-out to a far superior writer. Which is almost sweet, in its own “Oh what an adorable guileless idiot” kind of way, or it would be if he wasn't a successful musician and like 32 or something.

Then comes Howl, and yeah, we all know who Allen Ginsberg is, Brian. “Radio, oh radio, do you believe there’s still some magic left” No, fuck off. We’ve been over this. That's even more pathetic though. There's no longer the implicit placing of the song in this past which obviously NEVER FUCKING EXISTED, but a pathetic pleading for a time when all your taste got dictated to you by people wiser and smarter than you, but still apparently listening to this music made you badass and original. This isn't the threat of coup d'etat in The Ramones' We Want the Airwaves, the frustration of Alkaline Trio's We've Had Enough, it's a craven cry for the abdication of choice and thought when it comes to taste. and, to paraphrase Drew Magary writing about that other indelible backwards looking romanticiser of dead and dying media, Aaron Sorkin: this is trite, messagey bullshit, and he's not even making a good point. No one in their right mind wants to go back to a world where you had to listen to a fucking commercially dictated music box to get all your culture in the world. I know olds gonna old, but do youngs gotta old too? Their staggering popularity reminds me of that South Park episode where all the kids get doped up and start listening to Phil Collins.

Biloxi Parish is more Seger, more plodding. Good job on at least picking an original location for this song. Oh wait, he just namechecked Asbury Park. That's another thing, I like a bunch of the touchstones that Gaslight touch. I love Springsteen and Waits and Dylan, because they all crafted themselves great fucking works that were obviously built with a fairly substantial amount of self-conscious nostalgic mythmaking, but they let their influences coalesce into a new fresh whole that was indelibly them. The Gaslight Anthem are second-artist syndrome, just painting the painting, aware only of the brushstrokes not the motivation behind them, seeing only the top of the iceberg (which I'll admit is a cliche enough sentence that it could be a Brian Fallon lyric "OH BABY I COULD SEE YOU WERE AN ICEBERG HONEY BABY! HIDDEN IN YOUR DEPTHS WAS A BLEEDING THUNDER ROAD MAYBE!"). There is no depth of inventiveness, there's no sharpness or freshness, just cliches and I guess if you relate to the world through the power of cliches then good for you, they do tend to have a certain truth to them. I'm sure David Foster Wallace would approve.

Desire is finally another fucking up-tempo one. I’m almost tempted to love this just for the relief it provides. Sadly the lyrics are basically some nice-guy-syndrome easycore bullshit. I probably would've let this one slide had it come near the top of the album though. As it is I was just like "Who cares?" All momentum has been abandoned in favour of this meek smooshy niceness. This one song won't bring it back. A.O.arse.

Not sure which Mae the song Mae is about but it's probably West, given the way this record goes. This song seriously uses the line ‘Bette Davis Eyes’. See what I mean about the most fucking obvious glib no-work shortcut artistically-bankrupt references ever? AND THE RADIO IS ON AGAIN! Incidentally, listening to Bette Davis Eyes 12 times in a row is a much more effective way of capturing that breathy wistful lost-Americana feeling that Bri-Bri and the boys are tilting at because Kim Carnes took an American icon and bent her myth into a whole new thing, drawing from it, adding to it, pulling bits of herself into it, not just being an empty cipher for whatever wikipedia page she clicked on after starting with "HOLLYWOOD". She didn't just go "This girl's really cool. LIKE BETTE DAVIS LOL YEAH!?".

It ends with a song quite fittingly entitled National Anthem, because that's what this record is. It's an attempt to construct something uncontroversial and unifying that instead just highlights the divisions of the past and present, divisions which were swept under the rug far more in the past and we, struggingly but happily, have to live with in the noisy present, unless of course you want to retreat to a safe past that never fucking existed. This one's got a Bob Dylan (or possibly Elvis, who, if you would like to have this review quickly and cleanly cite a far greater writer in order to attempt to cling Fallonesque and desperate onto the coat-tails of their power, skill and insight, was a hero to most but he never meant... oh you know the rest. Motherfuck him and John Wayne.) reference, and one he’s actually used before, on Sink Or Swim, from It's Alright, Ma, I'm Only Bleeding (a fantastic fucking song with more ideas in one verse than Gaslight have probably exhibited their entire career). Does Brian 'No Laff' Fallon own like 4 CDs that he got free with some glossy dad-mag like Uncut all entitled THE ONLY ROCK AND ROLL SONGS YOU'LL EVER NEED (which he took sadly literally) and sells everyone on the idea that he’s got a deep meaningful relationship with the entire fossil-rock canon by the fact that he’s pretty and does that soulful constipated thing with his voice every now and then? Again, you can position yourself in whatever socio-mythological artistic tradition you want (and a lot of the bands I love like Night Birds or The Wankys or Mean Jeans are clearly aiming to replicate fairly closely a particular musical style that someone invented in the past and sticking with it because they love it, progress be damned) if people are gonna shamelessly rip-off, imitate and also DUMB DOWN the achievements of the past, does it have to be these achievements with their vile cultural narrative of sad bastard radio-rock entitlement? If so, why? Answers in a handwritten letter on paper made of AMERICAN REDWOOD TREES AND SEALED WITH WAX IN AN ENVELOPE MADE OF BURLAP OR SOME SHIT. WHAT EVEN IS BURLAP!?

In conclusion: It was just so boring. You can be into inoffensive soft-rock if you want but I fucking resent the way this is constantly sold as REAL MUSIC and also as MATURE MUSIC that you should like more than silly punk rock if you’re smart and good or grown up or whatever bullshit ego trip they’re selling to you this week when this is just the snoozing arrested development of someone bummed out they never got to live in a time where all their cultural choices were made for them expressing that wetfart nostalgia through the medium of songs that sound like Bob Seger and lines ripped without context or thought from a New York Times special supplement list of THE 100 GREATEST THINGS SERIOUSLY TOTALLY REVOLUTIONARY THINGS WHITE PEOPLE DID EVER. The past fucking sucked. Gimme some noise. Burn this shit to the fucking ground.

That was fun.