Let’s hope that Flowers isn’t the next Morrissey, putting out one brilliant album for every three duds.
As the frontman of the Killers, Brandon Flowers has earned a reputation for being over-the-top. This, after all, is the man who wondered, without a hint of irony, if we are human or if we are dancer, his sincerity making the question sound like a completely logical inquiry. This sincerity is largely what kept Flowers from sounding like a gushing teenager, the kind who writes bad poetry and foolishly believes he caught an epiphany in the confines of a predictable rhyme.
In addition to his naïve sincerity, what kept Flowers’ lyrical flights of fancy from sounding absurd or embarrassing was the musical prowess of his bandmates. Besides being a semi-clever play on words, “I got soul / But I’m not a solider” means absolutely nothing without the muscular rhythm section of Mark Stoermer and Ronnie Vannucci, which effectively transforms verbal nonsense into an infectious mantra. The push and pull of Flowers’ lyrical ejaculations and his band’s tight grooves lend the Killers a tension that suits their music, which is similarly stretched between dance and rock.
On Flamingo, Flowers’ solo debut, those tight grooves are missing, making it all too obvious that his lyrics can be not only amateurish, but also downright cloying. Roughly falling into two categories, his lyrics tend to be nonsensical or Springsteen-inspired. Here, Flowers devotes his time to pursuing the latter, using his native Las Vegas in the place of Springsteen’s New Jersey as the backdrop for tales of everyday Americans trying to make it through the day with the slightest of dignity intact.
This is where Flowers runs into his first problem, right from the outset. Springsteen’s great gift is making the mundane epic, transforming an otherwise lackluster existence into something meaningful. Flowers starts with the same tact in mind, but actually achieves the reverse. He takes the epic and makes it seem mundane. This is a great trick, indeed, but not an enjoyable one for the listener.
Take, for example, these lyrics, which come from album opener “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” (a title that, in itself, sounds both ridiculous and plastic): “Sunsets and neon lights / Call girls and neon lights / Blackjack and lady luck / Cocaine and lady luck / You call upon her on holy knees tonight.” Is this Flowers’ take on the desperation one feels when pushed into an all-or-nothing situation? It sounds like an ad for Las Vegas, not the gritty tale of disconsolation in Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”, which tells a similar story in much more stark, and poetic, details.
Such lyrical hokeyness pervades Flamingo, turning timeless themes into connect-the-cliché. On “Playing with Fire”, a song dealing – very loosely – with religious redemption, Flowers reduces man’s ultimate quest for meaning to worn-out imagery: “Playing with fire / You know you’re gonna hurt somebody tonight / And you’re out on a wire / You know we’re playing with fire.” Please, somebody, remove “playing with fire” to connote danger from all lyrical options, from here on out. And to rhyme it with “out on a wire”, another cliché? Ugh.
The other problem Flowers runs into is the music, which, on the whole, feels directionless and farmed out. Granted, part of this reaction undoubtedly comes out of bias, from the expectation that we'll hear something similar to the Killers when listening to Flamingo. That aside, the music lacks focus and a distinct sound. Much of it, in fact, sounds like a copy of a copy of a copy of the Killers. The synths are there, the dance beats are there, the occasional guitar solos are there, but a sense of purpose is completely missing.
A case in point is “”Hard Enough”, a duet with Jenny Lewis. Chronicling a couple that struggles to mature into a relationship before permanently dissolving, the song holds the potential to be stellar, especially with Lewis. Instead, it begins with gothic moans, morphs into an unholy blend of '80s new wave and modern adult contemporary, and then ends up feeling like karaoke fodder. There are other examples of such egregious musical shortcomings, but there’s a mercy rule for these things.
This all, unfortunately for Flowers, leads us back to the Killers. They are on a “hiatus” right now, which has fueled rumors that the band might be calling it quits. Let’s hope not. Flowers needs his bandmates, just as they surely need him. Without them, he has to rely on his surrounding players to lend his songs shape and ground his lyrics. Those are jobs you don’t want to entrust to just anybody. When you have to rely on a producer to lend your songs identity – even a producer as great as Daniel Lanois – then you’re just in trouble. That’s the job of a band, not a hired hand.
In the end, Flowers need only look to one of his heroes to see what happens when a great frontman is stripped from a great band. Let’s hope that Flowers isn’t the next Morrissey, putting out one brilliant album for every three duds. At that rate, we only have to suffer two more Flamingos to see what Flowers is capable of producing as a solo artist.