A little collaboration with DZ:
When last we checked in with The Killers, they were misappropriating Hunter S. Thompson (to great effect), wearing feathers on their shoulders, and continuing to split the surprisingly potent difference between Bruce Springsteen and The Pet Shop Boys–albeit with choruses that, one has to admit, frequently out-hooked those of their influences. Of course, Day and Age did nothing to help their standing with critics–they’ve been a punching bag since their second single–but it didn’t really matter. Everyone fell in love with the record anyway. I know I did. Perhaps because The Killers are so clearly an endangered species: an arena rock band that believes in rock and roll and has the God-sized anthems to prove it, yet are somehow just arch/glam enough to get away with it. The band has been on hiatus for the past four years, during which lead singer Brandon Flowers, AKA the world’s coolest Mormon, threw out a pretty good solo record. To adopt the language of Battle Born, their just-released fourth album, The Killers had the good sense to retreat when they needed to. Thankfully, they’re back with their biggest record yet.
Despite their well-known claim about ‘not being soldiers’, an overriding sense of conflict and struggle pervades nearly every song on the record. Flowers’ soaring Ian Curtis-by-way-of-Bono vocals tell of a battle fought against enemies which thwart one’s efforts. Boxing metaphors are everywhere—“leading with your chin” or “when they knock you down.” But Flowers’ gaze is not aimed at the winners of this conflict; instead, this is an album for the broken. Not so much a rallying cry for the victors as a soundtrack for the losers. These are tales of lost love, innocence, youth and redemption. As you might imagine, then, it’s not quite the party record that Day and Age was. While not without fun moments (“From Here on Out” being a prime example), Battle Born is more widescreen and earnest, equally well-crafted but less fashionable.
What makes the battle motif so interesting is that it’s paradoxically accompanied by a sense that loss is inevitable. Despite Brandon’s appeal to fight for love, there is an overwhelming expectation of defeat. In “Miss Atomic Bomb” he sings, “it feels just like a dagger buried deep in your back/ you run for cover but you can’t escape the second attack”. In “The Rising Tide” Flowers laments that, “the truth’s gonna come and cut me open wide and you can’t escape the rising of the tide.” Looking backward at a life filled with carefree ease, headstrong confidence, and naïve love, Flowers jadedly confess that “it was a matter of time” before this youthful joy turned to “the wreckage of broken dreams and burned out halos.” Time is not a healer of wounds, but an unforgiving taskmaster that rages against us.
This is not to suggest that the melancholy of Battle Born finds no resolution. Instead, several songs explore different aspects of existential insecurity with surprising hopefulness. Sure, life is a “battle”, but through the struggle and loss we can (miraculously) find rebirth. “Be Still” is a moving call to persevere and hold on, looking forward to a time with limitation or fear: “Don’t break character/ You’ve got so much heart/ Is this real or just a dream?/ Rise up like the sun/ Labor till the work is done.” It would be a mistake to interpret this as an exhortation to get ourselves out of our own mess, or pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Instead, you might say that it is a work of imputation (or to use the ridiculously geeky term, a perlocutionary act). As demonstrated by “Deadlines and Commitments” we find resolution to our dismay and gloom through the help of another, a help that comes to us as a respite from the discouraging economy of expectations. Or as Flowers asks in the bonus track, “Carry Me Home”: “Is there somewhere else that I can win? Is there something else to start over again?” If it all sounds unbearably melodramatic, it probably would be if it weren’t so absurdly catchy and the delivery didn’t contain so many (knowing) neon Vegas touches. Stephen Thomas Erlewine on AMG described it as the “curious fusion of the aesthetics of 1983 applied to the roots rock of 1989.” That is, the guys had the good sense to put a candy-colored sonic coating on pretty much everything, thank God.
And speaking of the Almighty, Flowers can’t help but utilize a great deal of religious themes and imagery in explaining how it’s possible for the weary to find rest and strength in such a relentless world. Indeed, God is all over the record, most clearly in “The Heart of a Girl,” where Brandon describes a visitation of a robed angel. The song climaxes in a profound and rousing confession of faith, replete with gospel choir (and one of his most infectious refrains):
“We’ve been trying to hear that ancient refrain/ It’s the one that knows us when our heads are down/ And reminds of the place from where we came …/ Many doors, knock on one/ Standing still, time is raging/ Staring down the mouth of a 100,000 guns/ You’re still here, you’re still here/ I believe that we never have to be alone/ Yes I believe it’s just around the bend/ You can hold it in or you can scream it on a microphone/ There is no end, there is no end/ Deep in the night I feel a presence of something that was long ago told to me/ There is a hand guiding the river/ A river to wide open sea.”
In short, with real thematic umph and soar to spare, The Killers make a welcome return ‘to the fray’ with Battle Born, a truly triumphant record about defeat. Let’s just hope they don’t stay away so long this time.