The Killers - Battle Born
You can’t judge a book by its cover. Which really is no fun at all but, hey, imagine if you could. Imagine if they let you do just that. The fourth album by The Killers is simply asking for it. It sports a horse. Charging down a desert highway. At night. Towards a speeding car. Depicted in glossy, lurid red and black, it’s like Jeff Koons hooked up with Taschen to give the first few Meatloaf album sleeves a new lick of paint because they were a bit under-stated. For a band whose output to date has placed roaring, heart-on-sleeve passion above irony or knowing self-awareness, it’s difficult to know what to think. Can something so wilfully obtuse really have any place within the oeuvre of an act so defiantly straight-faced?
Throughout, Battle Born gives off an unmistakeable whiff of tired resignation. If, like some, your problem with The Killers has always been that they know their way around a hefty hook but rarely get close to your head or your heart, album number four from the Las Vegas four piece will do little to sway you. Neither a cerebral challenge nor an emotional one, it flops to the floor in a pool of its own confusion. Like so many bands who reach mega stardom earlier than even they anticipated, Battle Born sounds both simultaneously empty and over-cooked.
Followers, of course, would claim that they never set out to stimulate intellectually, that they’re all about the buzz and the thrill, that euphoric indie rock release. A sea of arms amidst the ringing fanfare of ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’. Fine. But The Killers, don’t forget, arrived on a ticket of clued-up re-invention. Claiming a fondness for the Brit new wave and a host of post-punk agitators, they routinely covered Joy Division and New Order, spoke of a love for Duran Duran. But either their aesthetic leanings took a u-turn or it was just all so much codswallop, because Battle Born hints at influence not far beyond soft rock US radio. The downplayed guitars and the wash of programming gives much of this collection a homogenised, conservative sheen at odds with that early MO. They debunked much of their early approach (the clipped synth-pop of ‘Mr Brightside’ and ‘Somebody Told Me’) for the trad rockisms of second album Sam’s Town and it’s this ongoing inability to settle that fingers them for musical magpies rather than catholic innovators. Play Battle Born to aliens and they’ll clock straight away that this ain’t debut material. It’s too comfortable, too reflective. It’s too soft.
Don’t forget, as well, that this is the band who’ve now taken off the agenda what many would see as the bedrock of all influence. Politics is a no-go. Unwilling to discuss their own leanings, there’s a presumption they’re Republicans. It’s precisely that lack of engagement with the bigger issues that is mirrored between the lines of Brandon Flowers’ lyrics. Unremittingly literal, and no longer shielded by the likes of ‘Losing Touch’ and ‘Spacemen’ (zinging nuggets from previous album Day and Age), Flowers repeats the small town ‘me and you against the world, babe’ formula he favoured on Sam’s Town. Over and over. At one point he sings “I remember driving in my daddy’s car”, which, for someone whose previous output demonstrates more than casual familiarity with the work of Bruce Springsteen, is hard-faced larceny.
But still, you look hard for highlights, evidence that they’ve chanced upon a sliver of oddball inspiration. Or even just a killer chorus. You could be looking for a while. ‘The Way It Was’ sounds so like Eric Carmen’s ‘Hungry Eyes’, it has to be a curve ball (but ill-advised) gag. ‘Here With Me’ is wistful balladry of the wettest kind: “Don’t want your picture on my cell phone / I just want you here with me.” ‘Runaways’ is lively and kicks against a tone that is largely and surprisingly dour, but again Flowers over-eggs the story-telling: “We got engaged on a Friday night, I swore on the head of our unborn child that I could take care of the three of us.” Hardly the stuff of arena sing-alongs, that one, Brandon.
In its livelier moments, Battle Born comes close to achieving a likeable, over-produced sheen. ‘Flesh and Bone’ zig-zags with gleeful abandon and captures that fusing of robotic and organic that typifies their smartest moments. But little else here is as sparky. Its polite, almost genteel presentation, its lack of skewed dynamics, confirms that the The Killers’ pop ideals are closer to Tango in the Night than Seven and the Ragged Tiger.
Flowers is largely the problem – again, something of a surprise because he’s been effective enough previously with either intimate storytelling (much of Sam’s Town, to be fair) or ultimately empty, but punchy and stadium-sized, polemic. You do find yourself actually pining for something as daft as “Are we human, or are we dancer?” Here, he’s all over-exposition (“I was the new guy in town, And you…”) and high school heartbreak. Mooning after lost love like a teen in the bleachers, it’s a bit, well, sad. (If you want teen dreams in the dumpster done with guile and gumption, you’d be better off checking out an album written by an actual teenager. Taylor Swift’s Speak Now did all of this so much better a couple of years ago.) For a married man in his mid-30’s, Flowers makes the heartfelt sound schmaltzy and immature. Boy meets girl on every other track but this is a half-baked construct, a drug store and soda fountain America that The Killers’ FM-friendly meanderings struggle to sell. You know damn well that the world could tip on its axis tomorrow but whether that would provoke comment or even cognisance is open to question. The world’s going to hell in a handcart and millionaire musicians lazily shirk the difficult questions and settle for saying what they’ve said a million times before. In the absence of much else, rest assured there will always be two young lovers in a Killers song - white boy, white girl and, on the evidence here, white bread.