How distinct are The Killers, really? This might be a dull question, at least so long as their cocky and luxurious rock works as well as it does on the band’s fourth studio album, Battle Born. Well, their number one signature remains lead vocalist and frontman Brandon Flowers. Bands like The Killers, who in their whole attitude and ever since the breakthough with Mr. Brightside from their debut album Hot Fuzz (2004) have signaled an ambition of becoming one of the world’s biggest acts, have always been dependent on a distinct voice people could identify with their specific sound. What Bono is for U2, or Chris Martin for Coldplay, Brandon Flowers is for The Killers. It’s as it has to be. He makes a Killers song recognizable, at the same time that he has a certain kind of presence, on stage as well as on record, which always keeps me coming back for more.
The first time I played Battle Born, I expected it to be an album which returned The Killers to that successful core formula. 2008’s Day & Age had at times felt like an outlier in the Killers catalogue, with its nods to floor-filling dance music, most notably on hit single Human, but significant even on the slightly funk-infused Joy Ride. But when I returned to the Killers ouevre for the first time in a while in order to get my point confirmed, I discovered that it has always been, even on a somewhat flailing attempt like Day & Age or the all-caps rock & roller Sam’s Town (2006), more committed to that core than I remembered. I’m not saying it always works, but let’s bring in Sam’s Town, the underrated sophomore album that has always been given short shrift when compared to Hot Fuss. Sure, there’s a broader Springsteenian arena rock feel to the album, but its backbone (When You Were Young, Bling (Confessions Of A King), Read My Mind, For Reasons Unknown) nevertheless is recognizably Killers.
Likewise Runaways, the first single off Battle Born, has the restless energy I’m looking for in a Killers song, pounded home by the ever-present synth, and even coupled with quite sensitive lyrics. The first verse on opening track Flesh And Bone admittedly has a somewhat strange ring to it (“Refusing to yield the heed I penetrate the force field”), but it lands comfortably on the right side of Bono, another somewhat self-important signature vocalist Flowers seems to have borrowed a few tricks from. And there’s the cheerful pop (“That don’t matter now, life goes on/Hallelujah, the trouble’s gone”) of the irresistible From Here On Out, a rare synth-less exception, closer to Tom Petty than the band’s usual home in 1980s rock. The Springsteen feel is back in the chorus to the infectious The Way It Was, and if I was interested in namedropping, I could have mentioned the hints of Alphaville on Miss Atomic Bomb, but I mention it instead to underline that much good can come out of The Killers’ attempts to incorporate ideas from the entire palette of rock influences.
So why don’t I love it? Maybe I’m just stuck in the past. Until it is undeniably outshone, I will inevitably measure any new Killers album against Hot Fuss, the clear high-point of the band’s discography so far. And if it’s true, as I have suggested here, that the catalogue is more consistent, both in terms of quality and musical development, than my initial expectation for Battle Born had prepared me for, maybe that’s a reasonable yardstick to measure it by after all. Even after it has been played to somewhere beyond death (Somebody Told Me and All These Things That I’ve Done apparently are tailor-made for TV montages about sports!), Hot Fuss still manages to sound fresh and exciting, and Brandon Flowers’ self-assured rock persona alludes to the heroes of the glam rock era. I think Flesh And Bone is a really good song, but compare it directly to one of the hits from Hot Fuss for a moment: Doesn’t the over-produced bombast of the new song’s chorus sound just a little too calculated in its arena rock populism? Would it have lost any of its punch by going a little smaller and cutting a few corners to get to the chorus? In the end, I think Hot Fuss is the better record, not least because it trusts its two main assets, Brandon Flowers and the synth sound, to be enough, whereas Battle Born always has another layer of sound to throw in. The latter album is still a good one, but maybe not as exciting as it could have been. By the middle of the album, I’m having a little trouble to keep focused, just like Sam’s Town and Day & Age had to fight to keep me interested by the mid-way point. The album ends strong, with the aforementioned From Here On Out, the ballad Be Still and the title track, but somewhere in the middle a slight indifference creeps in. Neither Here With Me, The Rising Tide nor A Matter Of Time are able to peak my interest, despite the latter’s hair metal backing vocals.
In the end, however, I don’t know how useful the like/love distinction is, either. Even though The Killers probably never will claw their way into my rock pantheon, but four years ago, after Day & Age, I actually thought I was done with them.It was the year in which The Gaslight Anthem made The ’59 Sound, coming much closer to a great Killers album than that year’s effort from the band itself. Luckily, this album proved me wrong on that gloomy prediction. And more importantly: After that initial listen, I was unsure if I was going to listen to Battle Born for a second time. But once I gave it another go, it started to grow. Having achieved as much, it’d be foolish to rule out that it could grow further.