It’s been awhile since Brandon Flowers has said something stupid.
In the promotion of Hot Fuss, and even during the release of Sam’s Town, The Killers’ frontman amassed all sorts of publicity dissing bands and touting the prowess of his New Wave-inspired, Las Vegas-based quartet. (He once said Radiohead’s Thom Yorke should go back to writing pop songs.) But soon after that, he was asked to dial back the attitude, and he obliged.
Well, bigmouth strikes again. In the pages of England’s New Music Express, Flowers not only recently dismissed the relevance of dance anthems (especially compared to those from the rock genre), but took “guitar bands” to task for “not writing songs.”
The former sentiment is just another broadside from an out-of-touch rock guy threatened by the dance music movement. But the latter quote, while said with typical Brandon overstatement and timed perfectly with the press campaign for The Killers’ fourth studio album, Battle Born, is as naive as it is ridiculous. Rock acts have been crafting one gem after another over the past year, from Japandroids and Cloud Nothings to M83 and The Walkmen, among others.
But the real rub here is that Battle Born exposes Flowers’ hypocrisy, for he and his co-songwriters aren’t exactly writing memorable songs themselves. The new album is little more than empty grandiosity and unimaginative ’80s retread, lacking the original tunesmanship and resonance of the band’s previous efforts.
It also suffers from too much Brandon; Battle Born sounds less like a Killers album and more like the follow up to Flowers’ 2010 solo effort, Flamingo. That album, despite its soft synths and cowboy-lite flair, had both minor overlap with his more famous musical project and some solid tunes. Here, guitarist Dave Keuning, bassist Mark Stoermer and drummer Ronnie Vannucci are occasionally hard to discern from the rest of the production. Flowers, while never sounding better vocally, is often the only band member allowed above the synthesized pomp.
The album certainly starts like a Killers record. While opener “Flesh and Bone” boasts a melody that sounds a lot like the piano arpeggio from Coldplay’s “Clocks,” it’s the sort of floodlights-only number expected from the band, with a few inspired flourishes and structural left-turns. “Runaways,” the first single, is a giant, galloping production that grows on you, driven equally by the four musicians. These two numbers will likely slay audiences when played live.
After that sugar high, though, Battle Born sags. “The Way It Was” sounds like a John Hughes movie moment left on the cutting room floor. “Rising Tide” doesn’t live up to the title, despite its Kraftwerkian launch and Keuning finally letting loose. “Here With Me” is reminiscent of a Journey slow-burner. Two other forgettable ballads — which have never been a strength of this band — bog down the final third of the record.
Battle Born is not unlike Sam’s Town with regards to production, which often sounds belabored and overwhelming. Part of the problem here is that there’s too many hands on deck; no less than five studio wizards get a credit here. The synths are the album’s go-to space filler. Vannucci’s charging drums in “Deadlines and Commitments” add much needed purpose to a composition that would otherwise sound like a Cocteau Twins knock-off.
By the time we get to the title-track closer, which starts off like Bowie but degrades into REO Speedwagon, we’ve endured too many hackneyed FM-radio melodies, too many vague stories of pushed-around characters and narrators drawn too broadly to tell a real story, too many trite declarations of positive affirmation. It’s emotionally unrewarding, and any effort to further evolve from the career-launching Hot Fuss comes across more like a repudiation of its daft pop and pluckish charm.
“I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier,” Flowers sings on that album’s most celebrated refrain. And yet, eight years later, he’s Battle Born. But in his hellbent quest to write the Big Songs — or assert his narrowminded notion of what a rock band needs to sound like — he’s lost some of his musical soul in the process.