It has been four long years since Brandon Flowers and company (Ronnie Vannucci, Mark Stoermer, David Keuning) released 2008’s Day & Age, an album the found the quartet focused and ‘stepping up their game.’ Sure their debut album Hot Fuss yielded some alt-rock classics in “Mr. Brightside,” “Somebody Told Me,” and “All These Things I’ve Done,” and Sam’s Town added solid showings like “When We Were Young,” “Bones” and “Read My Mind,” but as a whole both albums left the listener with the impression that the Killers had not yet recorded their very best work. 2008’s Day & Age clearly was a maturer step by the band, delivering arguably their best album. Single “Human” was received if for nothing else than its lyric “Are we human/or are we dancer” which wasn’t grammatically sound. Add “Goodnight Travel Well,” the ultimate epic closing cut, and über fans were ‘dancing for joy.’
How does 2012’s Battle Born stack against the other albums? Compared to
their biggest hits which impacted radio in 2004, there are no commercial hits per say, however the quality of the songwriting and the cohesiveness of the album is arguably The Killer’s best work. First single “Runaways” may not have broken through radio like “Somebody Told Me” or “Mr. Brightside,” but it certainly shows how far the Las Vegas band has progressed. Eight years after the band made its splash, they may be crafting their most mature music yet. Producers include Steve Lillywhite (U2), Damian Taylor, Brendan O’Brien, and Stuart Price (Madonna). At 51:41, The Killers deliver an album absent of filler.
“Flesh And Bone” opens Battle Born superbly, characterized by its new-wave styled production utilizing synths and keyboards. Vocally, Brandon Flowers sounds exceptional, if not more so than usual. The cut begins incredibly mysterious, notably initiating with an 80’s electronic sound effect panned right and eventually adding a harpsichord-like minimalist keyboard synth. After flirting with lofty subject matter on the most mysterious first verse (“…This natural selection picked me out to be/a dark horse running in a fantasy…”), Flowers later goes on to deliver a brilliantly penned chorus: “…Am I running out of time? Flesh and bone/And what are you made of/Flesh and bone/Man I’m turning on a dime/Flesh and Bone…” Well produced (Lillywhite and Taylor), the Killers could not have asked for a better start to Battle Born.
“Runaways” may have a hard act to follow, but it easily takes on the gargantuan task, delivering yet another valedictory
moment. Characterized by a simple harmonic scheme and an edgier, overt rock sound straight out of 80s stadium rock, “Runaways” is equally brilliant as “Flesh and Bone.” Again, Flowers sounds invigorated her, particularly towards the end where he goes ‘full throttle’ rock star, something I’m not convinced I’ve heard so passionately executed from the dapper front man prior to now. Lillywhite and Taylor continue to deliver the goods from the production end while the music from the Killers – acoustic guitar, pummeling drums, and tasteful keyboard synths – is nothing short of delightful. The larger-than-life chorus confirms the greatness: “…Ain’t we all just runaways/I knew it when I met you/I’m not gonna let you Runaway/I knew it when I had you/I wasn’t letting go…”
“The Way It Was” concedes some of the ‘crowning achievement’ status established by the first two cuts, but continues ‘on the right path.’ Produced by rock standout Brendan O’Brien, the optimistic sounding cut has Sting and The Police sensibility in regards to its easy-going groove. Yielding another solid vocal, Flowers remains on autopilot: “…When we met, did you forget about those golden eyes?”
“Here With Me” makes the solid “The Way It Was” bow down as “Here With Me” is a special, chivalrous cut. Opening with reverb-laden keyboard (acoustic piano patch), the production (Brendan O’Brien) is superb. Add the use of strings and the sound is even more notable. Highlights include the catchy, well penned refrain (“Don’t want your picture on my cell phone/I want you here with me/don’t need those memories in my head no/I want you here with me…) as well as an exceptionally crafted bridge section.
“A Matter of Time” (produced by Lillywhite/Taylor)yields a sound that initially rivals the opener given the 1980s styled mysterious synths (Depeche Mode influence, etc.). Soon heavy guitars ‘soup’ up the sound, adding oomph. Background vocals add an extra bit of ‘goodness’ to take in, even if they are simple neutral syllabic fodder (“Whoa-oh-oh, oh-oh-oh-oh…”). With the New Wave sensibility fully invested into and a fine harmonic progression underlying, “A Matter of Time” keeps the consistency and momentum afloat.
“Deadlines and Commitments,” produced by Damian Taylor, finds Brandon Flowers delivering compelling falsetto that contrasts his grittier vocals. The vocal production allows for Flowers’s vocals to shine through, clear as a bell. Additionally, the songwriting is superb (“…I’m not talking about deadlines and commitments/sold out of confusion…”) Buttressed by a solid rhythmic groove, “Deadlines and Commitments” cedes nothing, only gains.
“Miss Atomic Bomb,” written by Flowers and Ronnie Vannucci, is produced by Madonna producer Stuart Price,
who provides some additional keyboard work. With Price ‘behind the boards,’ a sound similar to “Human” is cultivated (Price produced 2008’s Day & Age). It is by no means a copy-cat (nor as accomplished), but it delivers another consistent, solid performance finding Flowers in excellent vocal form and quite emotive within his performance.
On “The Rising Tide,” The Killers serve as writers and producers. Characterized by synths prior to infusion of drums and guitar, “The Rising Tide” does not rival “Flesh and Bone” nor “Runaways” but continues the high level of solid ‘role playing’ songs that are good, though not necessarily singles or the ‘cream of the crop.’ Not a personal favorite, there are plenty of highlights to take away here, including the dirty timbre of the electric guitar solo, lyrical prowess, and the deceptive quirks of the harmonic progression prior to the close of the cut.
“Heart of A Girl” (Lillywhite/Taylor) adds the Las Vegas Master Singersfor some excellent background vocals. Initially restrained, Flowers, like the cut itself, paces his way to a more overt and compelling vocal performance. By the second verse,
things have picked up, with the second iteration of the chorus greater than the first: “Daddy, daddy, daddy all my life/I’ve been trying to find my place in the world (I said to here)/ Baby, babe, I got all night/to listen to the heart of a girl.” By the bridge, everything seems to be in place with flawless execution. “Heart Of A Girl” is ‘second tier’ only because of the juggernauts it competes against.
“From Here On Out” is clearly first tier, finding The Killers delivering a sound punch in only 2:30. Produced solely by Steve Lillywhite, the tempo is quicker and the overt New Wave is
replaced with country-rock sound. “From Here On Out” recalls some of The Killers work on 06’s Sam’s Town. Flowers cycles agilely through the cuts quick chorus: “Hey, from here on out/Friends are going to be hard to come by/left to wonder what it all was about/he had it easy then he chose the hard way…” “From Here On Out” is superb.
“Be Still” follows-up convincingly, delivering a lovely cut that possesses some sensibilities similar to “Goodnight Travel Well.” Damian Taylor’s production is perfect with the Killers blending real, acoustic and synthetic instruments flawlessly. Closing cut, title track “Battle Born” doesn’t disappoint with keyboards/programming by Taylor, Violins (Alissa Fleming/Jennifer Eriksson) and background vocals once more by Las Vegas Master Singers. The sound is epic and perhaps smartly contrasts “Goodnight Travel Well” (can you tell I love that song?) . The harmonic progression works well, while the contrasts of acoustic guitars on the verse and heavier electric guitars on the refrain is well conceived ultimately. Again as great as the title track is, its competition is heavy.
Overall, in a year that has yielded some fine rock and roll albums (Rush, Bob Dylan, Dave Matthews Band, etc.),
Battle Born easily sits at/near the top of that list. The production is well executed, the songwriting sharp, the music
superb, and Flowers is certainly ‘on the next level.’ There are really few things to gripe about here, save for “Runaways” doesn’t break through to the top echelon of the Billboard Hot 100 and that at best Battle Born debuts at no. 3 with 110,000 (The Killers, Carly Rae Jepsen Aiming for Top 10 on Billboard 200). So what? Battle Born is Grammy worthy; this is some of the Vegas boys’s best work to date.