It’s big, bold and glitzy. It sits in the upper half of every album cover, always hovering over the title. The words are spelled out with an array of tiny lightbulbs, all but flashing at you on a neon marquee: THE KILLERS.
From Hot Fuss to Sam’s Town to Battle Born, it hasn’t changed – or even moved – in eight years. And really, the band hasn’t either.
Sure, the sweeping, cinematic Americana that The Killers are known for now wasn’t the defining sound of their 2004 breakthrough album, Hot Fuss. But it was all there on “All These Things That I’ve Done,” the epic track that essentially became the mission statement for the next three albums. Sam’s Town, Day and Age and now Battle Born have all adhered to one rule: go big or go home.
The Killers have become shamelessly, unabashedly ambitious. While they are frequently mocked for this clear desire to be The Great Rock Band Of Our Generation, you can’t fault them for trying. And on Battle Born, they try so, so hard.
If you already don’t buy into The Killers, you’ll probably find Battle Born even more bloated, ridiculous, and over-the-top than anything else they’ve ever done. But if you do buy into it, you’ll love the album for those very reasons.
Battle Born is massive, with giant choruses, soaring power chords and constantly building percussion. It’s an album that finds a band succeeding at its ultimate mission – creating Springsteen-esque stadium anthems on nearly every track.
The wild, charging feel of lead single “Runaways” – complete with lead singer Brandon Flowers howling, Bono style, “we can’t waiiiiiittttt ‘till tomorrow” – sets the tone for the rest of Battle Born for better and worse. The “Runaways” chorus is nowhere near the band’s most memorable, and neither are most choruses on the album. Instead, it’s the ride that matters; the peaks and valleys of every 4-minute track.
“Flesh And Bone,” “A Matter of Time,” and “The Rising Tide,” are all great, sprawling open-road songs – without a really good hook. Offered instead are a variety of strong musical moments – a percussion breakdown in “Matter of Time” with a slithering shake of maracas stands out as Flowers croons: “The world’s still awake on Charleston Avenue.”
The album’s two most memorable hooks come on “The Way It Was” and “Miss Atomic Bomb.” The former is a brilliant piece of ‘80s Springsteen recycling, as “Hungry Heart” bells chime in and power chords echo Flowers’ stutter-step singing of the song’s title (“the way – it was.”) The latter finds the band at its most reflective, with lush guitars, synths and strings jumping in for maximum cheese factor, boosted by the chorus (“Miss atomic bomb, makin’ out we’ve got the radio on”). Still, it’s cheese delivered with such sincerity that it’s almost hard to hate.
Often lost among the synths and the overwhelming ambition of The Killers’ music is the band’s most obvious but least talked about weapon – Flowers’ voice. It’s his quivering, frenetic wailing, sung as if his life depends on each and every word, that’s a perfect match for the scope of the band’s music. And his truly unique sound strikes an emotional chord when he lifts for the high notes – I keep replaying the moment on “Miss Atomic Bomb” when his voice leaps on this line: “so you took your place but the fall from grace was the hardest part.”
Flowers’ tendency to articulate even the corniest lyrics with the utmost sincerity is a major reason that some of The Killers music is easy to mock. The album is absolutely flooded with preachy storytelling and metaphors like: “there’s a wreckage of broken dreams and burned out halos and it’s here on our street.” It gets tiring.
This self-seriousness is also felt on “Here With Me” and “Be Still,” two power ballads that would fit better on an ambient soft rock radio station than a 2012 rock album. “Here With Me” is so catchy and gets upbeat enough that it redeems itself, while “Be Still” is simply too corny, for lack of a better word.
These flaws are all consequences of The Killers’ relentless ambition. Album closer “Battle Born” builds up to a single, gigantic drum thud, and then Flowers wails “up against the wall” with such conviction, alongside a power chord so huge that I actually laughed when I first heard it. It’s almost like Flowers is trying to see how far he can go before The Killers become a parody of themselves. The line may have been crossed somewhere along the way, but with an album this entertaining, does it matter? [B-]