Indeed, most modern bands would scoff at desiring such a thing, but The Killers undoubtedly occupy the upper echelons when it comes to stadium appeal, international success and sheer bigness.
Wearing their ambition and bluster with pride (frontman Brandon Flowers once declared 2006’s ‘Sam’s Town’ as “one of the best albums in the past 20 years”), they now unveil ‘Battle Born’, their fourth studio album of original material and the follow-up to 2008’s commercial smash ‘Day & Age’. And in keeping with the band’s penchant for not beating about the bush, it’s a doozy.
Though all logic suggests The Killers should be a ‘fad band’ – one who will never match the might of their last record, their glossy, commercial rock sound and themes of Americana growing tired – they are anything but. While debut ‘Hot Fuss’ arrested the world’s attention in 2004, shipping over 7 million copies, both ‘Sam’s Town’ and ‘Day & Age’, driven by hit singles such as ‘When You Were Young’, ‘Bones’, ‘Human’ and ‘Spaceman’, solidified The Killers’ status as modern rock behemoths and drew comparisons to their beloved Bruce Springsteen. If the pressure to continue coming up with the goods on album #4 was overbearing, you certainly can’t tell from the tunes.
‘Battle Born’, whose name was lifted directly from the Nevada state flag and whose cover art depicts a rather naff (but amusing) image of a vintage American muscle car tearing along the road, a black stallion galloping toward it, the whole tableaux hemmed in by desert, an open sky and distant, grainy cliffs, is something of a sister album to ‘Sam’s Town’.
Like that ode to Las Vegas, ‘Battle Born’ is replete with muscular power ballads, stirring, keyboard-led harmonies and call-and-response choruses. In fact, the band have never sounded so, well, alive.
Lead single ‘Runaways’ recalls ‘A Dustland Fairytale’, a pulsing, dramatic saga of a song about a restless lover itching to cut loose, and the lyrics are as yearning as any on ‘Sam’s Town’ (“I swore on the head of our unborn child I could take care of the three of us”). Deserving opener ‘Flesh and Bone’, meanwhile, is awash with digital effects and spirited along on a steady, rolling drumbeat, Flowers pugnaciously demanding, “What are you made of?!”
Many songs seem to vie for the title of ‘most epic’ – ‘The Way It Was’ probably takes the victory; its hypnotic basslines and outstanding lyrics lifting it above the contenders. Only a band as fiercely nationalistic, as committed, as The Killers can get away with lines like “I remember driving in my daddy’s car to the airfield/ Blanket on the hood, backs against the windshield”. Hell, some lines sound like openings of the Great American Novel; “Somewhere outside the lonely Esmerelda County line…” And Flowers’ subjects are always serious; love, heartbreak, the power of memory, the distance of time. Of course, some cynics will say he should bloody well be serious on this record, after howlers like, “Are we human or are we dancer?” Touche.
‘Here With Me’ is somewhat turgid, but works on unseen levels and gnaws at you till you confess it a worthy ballad, while ‘A Matter of Time’ is more reminiscent of the ‘Hot Fuss’ era, with its indie guitars and synth washes. ‘Deadlines and Commitments’, for its part, sounds like it should be on the score of some dark, late 80’s Al Pacino movie – gospel refrains and Flowers’ vocals a teasing, suggestive whisper.
‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ seems like a logical second single; a song that begins sounding overwrought before exploding to life nearly two minutes in as Flowers’ broods, “We were innocent and young.” While The Horrors became revivalists for the trippy, synthy sound of the late 80s on their last record, The Killers are resurrecting the clench-fisted pitch of that decade’s more bombastic stars – like Meat Loaf, for instance (on ‘The Rising Tide’) or U2 (‘Battle Born’). It’s better than it sounds, right enough – queerly, it never sounds too derivative or dated, in part owing to the musicianship at work here: Dave Keuning’s soaring solos are as vital to this band’s formula as Flowers’ vocals, while bass, keyboard and drums faithfully form a foundation for these anthemic songs to take flight. And when you’re feeling almost too macho, The Killers eschew their ‘no quarter given’ approach and deliver a tender, hymn-like lullaby such as ‘Be Still’.
Once again The Killers have got away with it. More than that, they have refused to slip and refused to compromise their sound, look or world view.
‘Battle Born’ is a triumph.