One’s enjoyment of Brandon Flowers’ second solo outing The Desired Effect will depend upon one’s lactose tolerance. It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when Brandon Flowers was cool. The Killers’ debut Hot Fuss was a narcotized neon cocktail of glazed eyes and inescapable choruses. It earned that rare combination of mainstream airplay and critical accolades. Then, overnight, the Killers morphed into the corniest band in America. At the center of it all was Flowers, wearing his Springsteen influences on his sleeve and what appeared to be a dead vulture on his shoulders. Over the course of four more Killers albums and one solo effort, Flowers’ songs have grown grandiose and his lyrics ever-so earnest. Unfortunately for Flowers, earnest isn’t cool.
But here’s the rub — The Desired Effect is good, much better than it needed to be. Flowers is an eternal optimist and his second solo effort is an uncompromising reflection of that personality. These songs are huge, heartrending and highway-spanning. However, for the first time in his career, Mr. Brightside’s rewrites of Born to Run don’t sound bloated. The record is weighty, but with a defter, more nimble touch than on prior efforts. There’s little to inspire vitriolic hatred on The Desired Effect — it just may force a smile on the most coldhearted of critics.
Five creative efforts after Hot Fuss, Flowers finally seems confident of his musical identity. Some of that maturity can be attributed to the album’s producer Ariel Rechtshaid. Rechtshaid has accumulated an enviable resume over the last few years — Usher’s “Climax,” Charli XCX, Modern Vampires of the City — but the most relevant frame of reference here would be his production work on HAIM’s Days Are Gone. Much like Days Are Gone, The Desired Effect synthesizes components of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s alike to create a seamless amalgamation of genres. Blaring trumpets intermingle with pummeling drums while synths cavort with hushed vocal harmonies. There’s even a tasteful mash-up of autotune and banjo on “Lonely Town.” Flowers’ influences aren’t nearly as transparent because they are so finely blended and mixed that an organic sound emerges. The cheese is blended perfectly with just the right amount of sleaze.
The Desired Effect also happens to sport some of Flowers’ more inspired songwriting in many years. Lead single “Can’t Deny My Love” is a slinky, seductive stomper with genuine chest-beating fire. “I Can Change” is the glittering Pet Shop Boys homage that “Human” should have been. “Diggin’ Up the Heart” is an inanely dorky reworking of “Footloose” that’s not as terrible in execution as it sounds in theory. Best of all is “Between Me and You”, a warm, slow-burning new wave ballad wrapped in Hornsby piano trills and tribal background vocals. It sounds like the roadhouse lovechild of Springsteen’s “Secret Garden” and the War on Drugs’ “Red Eyes”, but twice as gorgeous. Across the board, The Desired Effect sports memorable hooks and boundless energy — abandon all cynicism, ye who enter here.
There are still quite a few lyrical clunkers on The Desired Effect. As with previous Killers releases, they do drag down the quality of the record. Flowers uses “highway” as the second word on the entire album. It’s clear from the outset that his preoccupations with small towns, big dreams, and all-American heroines haven’t dimmed in the slightest. “I’ll bite what turns you sour baby / I got miles per hour lady.” (Ugh). “Tony came back to town with his cap and gown.” (Groan). “They shut down the Golden Sahara hotel / Jessica said it won’t be long ‘til they blow it all to hell.” (Facepalm). Still, populist songs like these demand lyrics as sprawling as the highway-bedecked country they evoke. The two go hand-in-hand — sometimes it’s poetry and sometimes it’s dreck, but it’s an inseparable part of the ethos.
So what exactly is “the desired effect” of this album? If I had to hazard a guess: To offer an uplifting, non-ironic blue-collar genre of rock that only seems to exist today in country music. Brandon Flowers has always been a paradox. As the poet laureate of Las Vegas, his songs exude all the gaudy flash and superficiality of his beloved hometown. Yet, his lyrics aspire to a different story. That of the people who built those (fake) pyramids and provide the necessary upkeep for America’s most beautifully dilapidated playground. Move beyond the inherent clumsiness of song titles like “Untangled Love”, and The Desired Effect becomes Flowers’ best manifestation yet of that conflict. B
The Desired Effect is out on MP3, CD, and vinyl.