The Killers, 'Battle Born'
By Tyler Huckabee
September 20, 2012
Tyler is something else. He's a writer who loves blue jeans, camping, hamburgers and rock and roll. He's also the managing editor at RELEVANT. You can read all about his fascinating life over at The Unbearable Lightness of Huckabeing, or read every dumb thought that comes into his brain on Twitter.
The thing about The Killers is that they've always been too good to be popular and too popular to be good.
Even in their 2004 heyday, with the one-two punch of “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me” on Hot Fuss, the band seemed destined for implosion, writing songs like they were already the biggest band in the world with enough sincerity to convince everyone that they were. They joined the rest of the early aughts’ “plural nouns” bands (The Strokes, The Vines, The Hives, The White Stripes). They followed Hot Fuss with the wilier, feistier, much better Sam’s Town, the album that betrayed frontman Brandon Flowers' deeply felt obsession with Americana.
But then things sort of hit the fan with Day & Age. The whole act became a little unbearable, even if “Human” remains a song future generations could structure a collegiate course on pop music around.
Now, following a hiatus and solo projects of varying success, the band has reunited to release Battle Born.
As a whole, it’s both better and worse than we might expect. Better, in that it’s a reminder that The Killers are truly capable of delivering on their dreams of Springsteenian anthem rock. Worse, in that they still sometimes substitute that ethos for things like songs.
But it's mostly better. If The Killers are aware of Nirvana, they don’t play like it. No grit or crunch sprinkles this slab of '80s rock sheen. The music is driven by twinkling keys and synths that build instead of pulse and is wrought of fist-pumping, singalong melodies that evoke the burnished glows of their Vegas hometown they obsessively reference. It rocks like Springsteen, yes, but it reminds one of no one so much as U2. Both in unapologetically Edge-esque squeals as well as Flowers’ diva howl, The Killers show they’ve picked up on one of U2’s best tricks: sincerity covers a multitude of sins.
On “Here With Me,” Flowers wails with so much earnestness it’s tempting to type the lyrics in all caps: Don’t want your picture on my cellphone / I just want you here with me. It’s a ludicrous line for an adult man to sing, but Flowers gives it his all and, you know what, it works. And the girl Flowers describes in the lines of the altogether perfect first single, “Runaways,” sounds like a model from a Harley-Davidson commercial, but it still manages to have an everyman appeal. None of us have ever lived in the world Battle Born creates, but we sure do like to think we have. The Killers either know how to capitalize on that desire, or honestly buy into it as much as the rest of us do. That authenticity is perhaps Battle Born's most compelling element.
The drive to sound like superstars is a hefty one, and it can leave the rest of us in the dust. While Springsteen had the good sense to tone things down (Nebraska stands forever as a reminder that The Boss knew what it was like to be a little man), the Killers show no such inclination on Battle Born, other than the tender “Be Still,” which Flowers wrote for his children. The lyrics are genuinely tender, sounding like something Gregory Peck would have told his children at bedtime ("Don't break character/You've got a lot of heart/Rise up with the sun and labor till the work is done.") But even that song, which starts as a gentle, piano-laced lullaby, gets loud enough to wake the dead by the end.
In some ways, The Killers might be a better fit for 2012 than 2006, what with the band's deeply felt sense of nostalgia that is much hipper now than it was when Sam’s Town landed. Of course, that puts the band in competition with a league of acts that probably honed their talents listening to The Killers' early hits.
Taken as a whole package—the heart on the sleeve, the singable choruses, the appeal to a particular sound and the feeling that may exist only in political speeches about “the greatness of America”—there's something irresistible about it. It’s more hype than substance. But then again, what's more American than that? And "American" is exactly what The Killers are going for.