The Killers have always been big. Even when this writer saw them in a tiny Cologne bunker just after the release of their debut album Hot Fuss in 2004, they were already well-equipped to storm the stadiums of the world. The songs were huge, the sound was massive and Brandon Flowers’ belief was gargantuan. It would be two more years of threatening the structural integrity of cellars and bars (at least in Europe) before The Killers would get the chance to play venues which could physically handle their music. And just when they reached this level, they upped the ante with Sam’s Town. Hot Fuss had been brash and ballsy, with a hint of the operatic which would start to creep in over time, but with Sam’s Town, the Killers took those songs down the gym and put them through a serious muscle-building regime. The 2006 vintage Killers was a steroid-pumped behemoth of a band, rolling through 159 shows, five continents and 28 countries in just over a year, culminating in headlining shows at Madison Square Garden and Glastonbury. The scope of the music, the image of the band, and the possibilities before them exploded exponentially. In three years, they’d become one of the biggest acts on the planet.
But as well as reaching stadium rock’s zenith, they seemed to have lost many pieces of what made them unique on the way. They’d gone from fresh, young and hammy pretenders to bourbon-soaked, impervious penthouse playboys…misplacing their sense of irony and fun on the way. With 2008’s Day & Age, along with the back catalogs of Springsteen and Bowie which the album obviously drew on, Flowers discovered an inflated sense of importance which lacked the self-awareness which had made the sequined posturing not only acceptable but pleasingly palatable in rock’s mid-decade dullness. The Killers were in danger of falling victim to their own success and ending up another bloated AOR corpse on the highway to what-could-have-been. Thankfully, Brandon pulled back from edge just in time. Putting the band on hiatus, he went away and came back with solo album Flamingo in 2010. While patchy in quality, Flamingo at least saw The Killers front man return with renewed humility. While still overly dramatic in places, most of his songs displayed a control which his band had been on the verge of losing.
Now, two years after taking stock, The Killers are back and not only are they back in control, they’ve managed to hit on a formula which allows them to theatrically soar as before but remain tethered to the earth. Battle Born is expansive and panoramic but it’s shorn of the flabbiness that had gathered on their lithe frames with Day & Age. With that album, Flowers asked pretentious questions such as “are we human or are we dancer?” If Battle Born asks one question it could be “can regression be a positive thing?” The answer is a resounding yes, if by regression one means going back to a time before an aberration was committed and starting again from a point where things were almost perfect. Battle Born is the child which should have come from the union of Hot Fuss and Sam’s Town. It’s melodic, it’s strong, it’s powerful – but more importantly, it appears to have learned from previous mistakes. The Killers could never do stripped-down, they could never do lo-fi, but Battle Born is about as compact as they could possibly hope to be. After pulling back from the abyss, The Killers have found a restrained majesty in what they always did better than anyone else. Be under no illusions, Battle Born is a triumph and a more than welcome return to form.
“I’ve gone through life white knuckle in the moments that left me behind…refusing to heed the yield…” The opening line of the album sets the tone as Brandon Flowers makes it known on “Flesh and Bone” that he’s had time to take stock of what’s gone before and has realized that, rather than being a spaceman floating high above the rest of humanity or some indulgent preacher passing judgment, he’s one of us. A human, not dancer, culpable and mistake-ridden. It’s a rip-roaring opening track which is both self-analytical and celebratory. The Killers seem to be reveling in the fact that they’ve found themselves again while holding their hands up to previous misdemeanors. There’s no wallowing here as “Runaways” proves. The second track is textbook Killers, a tale of star-crossed lovers fleeing a sticky situation told in rousing Springsteen fashion. It’s goose-bump inducing stuff. “The Way it Was” follows and continues the theme of doomed romance. This is pure and unadulterated 80’s power ballad territory but instead of going into pastiche overdrive, the band takes the foot off the gas and let the message linger and fade. The restraint from that finale bleeds into “Here With Me” which is brought to you by our sponsors at Zippo. This one comes with lighters aloft as standard. It teeters just on the right side of cheesy, proving that they haven’t lost that quality of plucking the heartstrings with just enough power not to snap them. “I don’t want your picture on my cellphone…I want you here you with me,” Flowers sings. “I don’t want those memories in my head.”
Raising the stakes again is “A Matter of Time” which could have come straight off Sam’s Town. It’s a sinister rocker, a chugging tale of dark obsession from the grimy underbelly of Las Vegas: “There’s a panic in this house and it’s bound to surface…Just walking through the front door makes me nervous.” Pulling back once more, adding to the well-paced ebb and flow of the running order, is “Deadlines and Commitments” which, while a competent inclusion, has the feeling that’s just here making up the numbers. It’s Fleetwood Mac-lite and the only real drop in quality. Thankfully, “Miss Atomic Bomb” arrives to lift the level to exemplary again; a teenage tale of “making out with the radio on” under the neon lights of Nevada’s city of sin. It’s anthemic and epic, like Joshua Tree-era U2 – all frantic verses dropping into breathless breaks before rocketing skywards into chiming choruses. “The Rising Tide” has elements of that Hot Fuss confidence and naivety – there’s strands of “Mr. Brightside’s” DNA woven through it as it builds into a crashing finale – but this is underpinned by the new maturity and control which reins in the pretentiousness of old. This maturity and control is most evident on “Heart of a Girl” which could be The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” if Lou Reed had favored satin rather than leather. The Killers of old would have layered on about eight extra tracks on top of what’s presented here and it benefits greatly from that restraint in production. What comes next, “From Here on Out.” is pure E-Street pop; it’s blue collar optimism in the face of bullies and oppressors – and it’s great.
The proof of any Killers pudding is in the eating of the last morsels. There are few bands that fall victim to the epic grandeur and indulgence of a massive finale in the way The Killers do. If Battle Born the album was going to be exposed as a false dawn its cover would have been blown by the end song of the same name. And while “Battle Born” borders on the preposterous at times, it has fewer of the dragged-out theatrics which have closed previous albums. It’s a clattering rock finale with Dave Kuening’s chiming guitar runs echoing those of The Edge, while Ronnie Vannucci’s drums and Mark Stoermer’s bass try and anchor the whole thing down. It fades out and then back in on a piano coda, but instead of using this as a cue to bring in the big finish, the keys quietly retreat again as the album ends.
Now they have rediscovered their mojo, one hopes that The Killers will continue to learn from their previous mistakes. Battle Born will no doubt shoot them back into the stratosphere and necessitate another mammoth world tour, taking in the world’s enormodomes, but hopefully it won’t blow their minds – and egos – like it did last time. It seems unlikely that Brandon and Co. will let things get to that level of craziness again, especially after seeing what can be achieved – in terms of quality material – from embracing humility. One wonders though, what The Killers can hope to produce after this. It would be a beautiful full-stop if they decided it was as far as they could go.
Reviewer: Nick Amies
IRC: Tom Byrne
You can read more of Nick Amies by visiting his webblog at http://ligger.wordpress.com/
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