***1/2 (out of four)
Is there any band right now that so consistently delivers impassioned, moving rock records that make you wish the albums would come to life so you could get a beer with them?
Outside of the likewise stellar Japandroids, the Gaslight Anthem currently carries the torch for music fans who want to pump their fists and sing along with choruses and feel the blood of rock ‘n’ roll pulsing through their veins. Following 2010’s great “American Slang,” the New Jersey quartet teams up with producer Brendan O’Brien (Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, AC/DC) for its fourth full-length, perhaps to escalate its barroom tales to stadium-sized grandeur. Fortunately, “Handwritten” still boasts a constant stream of catchiness against singer/guitarist Brian Fallon’s sincere, gravelly vocals. From killer first single “45” to the stomping “Mulholland Drive,” these big songs bridge the gap between arena scale and intimacy, the sort of tunes that bond you to the thousands of other people rocking nearby. Moving closer “National Anthem,” however, may turn you all into weeping wrecks.
The words don’t always earn the attention of the music. The music’s too good to really care. The band has never sounded more confident--honest and still inspired by rock trailblazers but no longer necessitating a nod to the Boss. Fallon calls the record “Tom Petty songs [being] played by Pearl Jam,” and I won’t argue with that. The Gaslight Anthem still recognizes bruises but become survivors to admire. And when the lyrics hit, they burn their way into your soul, as when Fallon bellows on “Biloxi Parish,” “I’ve found that nothing truly matters that you cannot find for free/I love you more than I can tell you, and when you pass through from this world/I hope you ask to take me with you that I will not have to wait too long.”
“Handwritten” is a genre-lover’s record to savor—Fallon’s voice even approaches Chris Cornell-like rawness on standout “Too Much Blood”—pensively toasting strength without feeling grounded by its bittersweet edges. With any luck, these guys will soar to the level they deserve.