Front Page Reviews & AIR
The Killers - Battle Born
The Killers have always been interested in exploring and exploiting archetypes. They’ve never been afraid to mine rock music history in order to borrow motifs from anything and everything—from 80s pop and new wave to Springsteen-esque Americana. This is a band, after all, that converted their hometown of Las Vegas into a mythological stage where the ongoing battles between good and evil were dragged out into the light and played out, their own personal “Desolation Row,” if you will. And so it’s no surprise that The Killers’ latest album revisits the archetypes that they’ve made a career of referencing. But Battle Born’s litany of archetypal stand-ins and melodic indulgences calls into question whether The Killers still know where the archetypes end and they themselves begin.
From the 80s Casio keyboard opening of the lead track, “Flesh and Bone,” all of the sonic qualities that we’ve come to expect from the band are displayed in full force: the 80s homages, the dynamic uplift, the unapologetically anthemic melodic flourishes. And it is on this latter quality, in particular, that the band has doubled-down. More consistently than ever before, they indulge their love of sweeping melody, blatantly risking charges of derivative cheesiness at every turn and taking the listener on an “oh-no-they-did-not-just-go-there” rollercoaster that evokes everyone from the usual suspects like U2 and Springsteen to cheesemasters like Meatloaf and Bryan Adams. It makes for an exhilarating first listen, especially for those of us who retain some memory of the melodic tradition they are mining. In fact, Battle Born seems explicitly designed to press the nostalgia buttons of pop and rock music fans in their 30s and 40s, and the precision with which it does so is both kind of cool and kind of creepy.
In the midst of these melodic indulgences, lead singer and lyricist Brandon Flowers seems more interested than ever in exploring American mythological archetypes: runaways, backseats, suntans, young love, struggles for identity. And the pairing of these ultra-archetypal lyrical themes with ultra-archetypal rock melodies seems to be the logical extension of the band’s undeclared mission since the beginning: to test whether the archetypes which have served as our shared popular cultural touchstones for the last half-century still hold any power or truth. If Battle Born alone were the test, the answer would be: “not as much power or truth as you might think.”
But Battle Born is not the best test of the power of the archetypes it employs; one can find better test cases in The Killers’ own back catalog. Unlike their previous high points, which hinged on personal tales that embodied the archetypal themes of jealousy (“Mr. Brightside”), soul-searching (“All These Things That I Have Done”), the loss of innocence (“When You Were Young”), or the loss of a parent (“Dustland Fairytale”), even the best songs on Battle Born—like “Flesh and Bone,” “Runaways,” “Here With Me,” and “Be Still”—seem to substitute archetypal stand-ins for personal stories and experience. It’s like the band forgot that archetypes are only powerful to the extent that individuals connect with them. And this is why, in order to be powerful, they need to be infused with personal stories which embody them. On their own, archetypes tend to devolve into the kinds of meaningless platitudes and forgettable generalizations that are all over Battle Born.
All of this is a shame, really, because Battle Born sounds as good as anything The Killers have ever done. The melodies are as infectious as ever, the meticulous production helps the music jump from the speakers, and Brandon Flowers' voice sounds fantastic. But it’s hard to find anything of the band in the album to connect with on a deeper level. And it has always been The Killers’ ability to meaningfully personalize the archetypes in their music that has set them apart from both the disposable mainstream pop acts with which they shared the radio airwaves as well as the empty posturing of many of their contemporaries in the indie-pop “underground.” The band is skilled enough that, in spite of everything, Battle Born is still sonically enjoyable. But the fact that the same can be said of countless albums by acts who can’t hold a candle to The Killers best work makes such an assessment sound like the backhanded compliment it is.