“I definitely, as I’ve gotten older, have been more cautious about lyrics. I feel I want to be a positive force in the world and I want to uplift people.”
–Brandon Flowers, 2011 mormon.org advert
The Killers will probably go down as one of the biggest guilty pleasure bands of all time.
The reasons for this are numerous. When you get right down to it, the band has very much found their niche as ’80s rock revivalists, reappropriating the era’s neon synths and Springsteen’s flag-waving swagger for a modern day audience, which basically means that their sound can be either exciting or predictable depending on who’s listening. On one hand, the group has an uncanny knack for a great pop hook, and when they hit that sweet spot (as they have on “Mr. Brightside”, “Human”, and the spectacular “When You Were Young”), they sound absolutely invincible. In some cases, deeper album cuts (“Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” from Hot Fuss, the extraordinary “This is Your Life” from Day & Age) became fan favorites almost as recognizable as the group’s singles.
On the other hand, the group carries with them a lot of baggage: frontman Brandon Flowers’ ever-expanding ego (and Gallagher-level declarations of greatness), Flowers’ equally-inscrutable (and sometimes downright pretentious) lyrics, the group’s wild inconsistency in quality (best exemplified by Day & Age, which carried both their best and worst songs and little in between), and their gratuitous, too-deliberate aping of their heroes (Springsteen especially). It’s for this reason that after Day & Age‘s release in 2008, the group decided to take a bit of a break, most of the members releasing solo projects in one form or another, Flowers’ being the most high-profile of them all (and for those curious, no, it was not good).
Thus, Battle Born, the band’s fourth album, carries a lot of expectations with it: would this show the group settling into a sad routine not too far gone from the numerous performers stuck in never-ending revues in their hometown of Las Vegas or would this be the album that truly establishes them as the go-to post-millennial hitmakers, saving rock music from its current commercial doldrums?
In truth, it does neither of these things. Instead, Battle Born seems intent on making a statement, proving the group could pull off more artistic songs without having to appease radio format programmers, here avoiding easy pop hits in favor of a more expansive sound that’s more MOR than AOR. The end result? The blandest, most forgettable, and most generic-sounding album in the group’s discography, hands down.
Yet this shouldn’t be the case at all: a quick scan through the album credits shows a gigantic A-list pedigree involved in the making of Battle Born. On the production side of things, the group brings back Day & Age helmer Stuart Price for a few songs, but they also round up a variable Who’s Who of modern rock production wizards: Steve Lillywhite, Daniel Lanois, and Brendan O’Brien all have a hand in trying to elevate the group above the standard pop single. While such a list of names — each associated with their own established, unique aesthetic — might lead one to believe that this album will be as colorful and diverse-sounding as Day & Age was (albeit with a far greater level of quality than that disc), the truth of the matter is much grimmer. On a purely sonic level, there is very little that separates these songs from each other, each song rarely venturing outside the textural palette established in the track preceding it. Although certain moments work well by themselves, Battle Born flat out fails as an album, offering nothing new while simultaneously ditching the very things that made the group such a guilty pleasure band to begin with.
Things start off interestingly enough: light Casio key plinks turn into a layered sandwich of synth tones, the chorus kicks in, and then just when you think “Flesh and Bone” couldn’t get any grander, it enters a bridge that’s filled with violin plucks and “96 Tears”-styled key pounding. It’s an odd bit in an OK opener, but by the time the galloping lead single “Runaways” comes in, everything just falls apart: the pre-chrous, the chorus, and the verses themselves are comprised of so many melodic changes that nothing actually sticks (and seriously Mark Stoermer, you can tone it down a bit on the bass work). There are simply too many attempted melodies here for casual ears to sort through: finding a through-line is a downright chore, and even when you do settle down to appreciate some of the upward glides guitarist Dave Keuning manages to pull off, those moments are gone just as quickly as they came. The beautiful, deeply considered simplicity of songs like “Smile Like You Mean It” or “Read My Mind” are nowhere to be found on this disc. Instead, we have the sound of a band that is officially trying too hard.
This problem of misguided overambition persists throughout Battle Born: the band wants to do everything at once but in doing so, forget to write anything memorable in the process. The cool ’80s synth waves of “Deadlines and Commitments” leads to a chorus that comes off like a slowed-down version of the chorus to (oddly) “Runaways”, the sky-scraping “Here With Me” is a ballad that gets stuck in mid-tempo limbo (yes, it’s OK to change the drum pattern every once in awhile), and “From Here on Out” sounds like a mishmash of a lot of ’80s songs all at once (note the Paul Simon-like vocal inflection on the chorus) while simultaneously not being better than any of them. Even the pulsing “A Matter of Time”, full of chanted group vocals in the verses and a surging bassline underneath it all (all great elements by themselves), trips over itself with a chorus that sounds like nothing but pre-chorus, constantly building to a big melodic payoff before simply dropping back down into the verse again. It’s an incredibly frustrating experience for listeners, because although one might add this up to the Killers simply trying to challenge their audience, it never once feels like they’re deliberately doing so: it just sounds like we’re being treated to a less-imposing version of themselves, trapped in an introvereted world where every track sounds great in the studio but it fails to translate elsewhere. Battle Born shows the group frequently making choices that take them so far out of their comfort zone that they seem to have completely forgotten what their own comfort zone is.
Lyrically, Flowers seems to have honed in on a theme of young love, and rides with that idea for a majority of the album (take a shot anytime he says “innocent” or “innocents”). Unfortunately, he sings every song in that same deadpan, affected croon that has become his signature, but without the diverse musical backing or strong hooks that have helped his words stand out previously, thus only adding to the problem of Battle Born‘s songs melding together. At times, Flowers can actually come up with some nice imagery (“They’ll call me the contender / They’ll listen for the bell / With my face flashing crimson from the fires of Hell”), and at other points he delivers lines so deeply over-marinated in metaphor that they turn face-palm embarrassing (“You lost faith in the human spirit / You walk around like a ghost / Your star-spangled heart / Took a train for the coast”). It’s rare to score a knockout win with Killers lyrics, and unfortunately with Battle Born, that battle of quality rages on unabated.
Yet despite Battle Born‘s overly bland nature, the band still pulls of some very nice moments, although none of them are in line with their greatest works. The wistful “Miss Atomic Bomb” is one of the more autobiographical songs that Flowers has turned out, sweet and deeply invested in its subject of a failed relationship from long ago (and playing the “Mr. Brightside” riff half-way through? A nice, nostalgic touch). “Heart of a Girl”, meanwhile, shows the group drawing inspiration from U2’s The Joshua Tree, the song riding on a very dry, unadorned guitar riff while Flowers delivers one of the most casual, unforced vocal performances we’ve yet heard from him. In fact, when the backing choir comes in at the end, it doesn’t feel garish or excessive: the group positively earned it this time out by not overplaying their hand. It’s in this vein that kudos must be given to “Be Still”, as this is the sound of a Killers ballad being done right, never going into full-bore overdrive (the beat consists of a simple tinny drum machine and nothing else) and allowing Flowers the chance to sound actually vulnerable for once, his voice confident yet cracking, that swoop over the ethereal synth waves at 1:12 being stronger and more pointed than just about anything else on this album. It’s a side we’ve never seen of Flowers before, and with any luck, this won’t be its last appearance.
When you add it all up, Battle Born is a confused mess of an album, drenched in influences but positively overextended in its execution, the band trying way too hard to do something grander and more complex than what they’ve done before. It’s great to have a group want to branch out and do something new, but with results as tepid as this, it’s becoming apparent that the world’s greatest guilty pleasure band are slowly becoming less and less of a pleasure with each new release.