I’d love to be a fly on the wall when The Killers first start discussing a new album.
Imagine the tension in the room as Ronnie Vannucci, Dave Keuning, and Mark Stoermer wait for lead singer and principle songwriter Brandon Flowers to arrive! “What do you think it’ll be this time,” one must ask the other. “Are we gonna do The Smiths, or are we gonna do The Boss?”
Indeed, to a degree you never know what kind of sound you’re going to get in a new Killers album. That’s because there are two seemingly mutually exclusive musical inclinations coursing through the Las Vegas quartet.
The former, which defined albums one (2004’s Hot Fuss) and three (2008’s Day & Age), is a synth-heavy, Euro-influenced aesthetic. Indeed, if you first heard The Killers during the Hot Fuss era, you’d have been forgiven for thinking lead singer Brandon Flowers was British. I did.
There were no misperceptions about where Flowers was from on album two, however, 2006’s Sam’s Town, and the sound that dominated that album is back in a big way for album four, the recently released Battle Born.
That sound is best described as Bruce Springsteen meets U2 meets Bon Jovi. You can find a synth here and there, but the music is guitar-driven and the songs are obsessed with all things Americana, particularly the American West. Where Sam’s Town had “brothers born on the Fourth of July”, Battle Born has characters with “star-spangled hearts” on “a train for the coast”.
Perhaps we might have seen the musical orientation of Battle Born coming. During The Killers’ post-Day & Age hiatus, Flowers released Flamingo, a solo album that made it clear he wasn’t done exploring his Springsteen obsession, even if it had receded a bit on the most recent Killers disc.
And yet – and yet! – for all its seeming incongruousness, The Killers pull this schizophrenia off somehow. Whether dressed up in synths or guitars, The Killers know their way around big, anthemic songs with choruses that demand the listener sings along. It’s arena rock at its finest.
No matter how different “Mr. Brightside” and “When You Were Young” and “Spaceman” might have been, you’d still sing them like your life depended on it at their concerts.
And that’s what the songs on Battle Born are designed to do. When the songs hit, as on lead single “Runaways,” you can almost hear a stadium full of people singing the chorus (“We can’t / WAAAAAA-AAAAAITTT / ‘til tomorrow”) along with Flowers.
Ditto lines like “what are you afraid of / and what are you made ooooo-offffff” from “Flesh and Bone” or “Don’t need those memories / In my head/ NO-OOOOO” from the excellent “Here With Me”.
The album hits more often than it misses, though it is a bit top-heavy. With the exception of “From Here on Out,” a breezy jaunt of a song (reminiscent of the excellent “Magdalena” from Flowers’ solo album) that sounds very out of place here but it’s fun so you don’t mind, the back half of Battle Born stalls a bit after “Miss Atomic Bomb.”
While the Lou Reed-tinged “Heart of a Girl” is at least an interesting experiment, “The Rising Tide” never quite comes together and “Be Still” is a bit plodding for my tastes.
It all leads up to the album-closing title track. It’s as big and bombastic as the record itself (“Remember what I said / boy, you was / baaaaaa-ttle / born”), a fitting close.
And then at the 4-minute mark, just when it should end, everything gets real quiet. And then the synths pick up in the background. And just for a moment it’s like your back listening to the outro to “Believe Me Natalie” from Hot Fuss.
“Forget what they / said / in Soho” Flowers urged in that song. As they did on Sam’s Town, The Killers have done just that with Battle Born.
And it works.
And the concert will be EPIC.
Verdict: 3.5 stars out of 5
Recommended downloads: “Runaways”, “The Way It Was”, “Here With Me”, “From Here On Out”