Island Records, 2012
For those of us who wondered what Flamingo would have sounded like with the full force of The Killers behind it, the question is ostensibly answered with Battle Born. Largely, the songs here have the same wandering, soul-searching tendencies that developed on Flowers’ last two albums, but the style is refined. Take the meandering “Heart of a Girl,” which channels The Velvet Underground with a bass-heavy opening, ringing keys at the break, and Flowers’ best Lou Reed impression. “A Matter of Time” kicks off as a retread of Flamingo’s “Jilted Lovers and Broken Hearts” before exploding into a cinematic rocker that could easily have been on Sam’s Town. “When we first met, headstrong and filled with doubt/Made just enough hustling tables that summer to take you out/I was fallin’ back on forever when you told me about your heart/You laid it on the line,” Flowers belts out halfway through. It’s a song rife with the euphoria of first love, but it’s also a shape-shifter, and as the tension builds throughout, we feel the relationship evaporate before our eyes. By the time Flowers reaches the “wreckage of broken dreams and burned out halos” waiting for him in the final lines, everything has changed.
Thematic connections begin to form between the songs on Battle Born as one delves further into them. The rousing “Miss Atomic Bomb” reflects on the naivety of the characters in “A Matter of Time” (“You were standing with your girlfriends in the street/Fallin’ back on forever, I wonder what you came to be,” Flowers sings at the outset), but also plays as a sequel (or rather, prequel) of sorts to “Mr. Brightside.” “I was new in town, the boy with the eager eyes,” he states in the first verse, calling back to the hit that made him a rock star. We already know that the girl in the story ends up cheating, but “Miss Atomic Bomb” examines the narrative on a more personal and nostalgic level. The song builds to a multi-tracked vocal climax, Flowers baring his soul in a maze of anguish accentuated perfectly by the song’s tumultuous and bombastic musical structure. It’s the closest the band has come to the sound and feel of Hot Fuss in years, and for many, that will be the biggest selling point of Battle Born. The same can be said for the synthy 80s pop of “Deadlines and Commitments,” a dark spiral of song which serves as the perfect bridge between the album’s two thematic pillars, or “The Rising Tide,” which gives Dave Keuning a roaring and disorienting solo: this is the band people fell in love with eight years ago.
But while musical and thematic elements from both Hot Fuss and Flamingo are revisited here, Bruce Springsteen is clearly still Flowers’ go-to musical influence. He’s all over these songs, whether we’re talking about the two aforementioned narratives of young love or the skyscraping lead single “Runaways.” Perhaps it’s not so surprising for a band that has made their name on larger-than-life chart toppers, but “Runaways” is arguably the best song you will hear on the radio airwaves this year. This is the “When We Were Young,” the “Read My Mind”; in Boss terms, the lyricism falls someone between “Born to Run” (“Let’s take a chance baby we can’t lose”) and “The River” (“There's a picture of us on our wedding day/I recognize the girl but I can't settle in these walls”), but the ultimate impact is universal either way. Once the explosive third verse crackles through the speakers, all influences and preconceptions are rendered moot by the overwhelming power of the Herculean arrangement; a lot of bands attempt the arena-sized anthem, but almost nobody does them better than this.
Speaking of arena-filling choruses, album-highlight “Here With Me” has a mammoth one. It’s a shameless 80s-style power ballad, more reminiscent of Journey or Foreigner than Springsteen or U2, but Flowers pulls it off. Piano chords and reverb-drenched vocals serve as the commencement, a fitting kick-off for a tune that builds into a modern-day cigarette lighter love song. “I don’t want your picture on my cell phone/I want you here with me,” Flowers proclaims on the chorus, wearing the potentially hokey line proudly and somehow transforming it into a transcendent battle cry. That’s the thing about Flowers: for all of his egotistical remarks and conflict-inciting interactions with other bands, you never doubt his conviction. He has the voice, the charisma, and the searing emotional audacity to give an epic classic rock record (which is essentially what Battle Born builds into) its gravitational pull, and while the contributions from his band are very obviously instrumental here, it’s his heart-and-soul dedication to these songs that ultimately makes them work.
It’s fitting that Battle Born closes with its title track. From the resounding guitar hits (culled directly from The Who's “Baba O'Riley”) to the “Bohemian Rhapsody”-flavored back-up vocals, all the way to a verse that apes Woodie Guthrie’s “The Land is Your Land,” “Battle Born” is one hell of a climax. When the song finally shatters into a gospel-flavored coda, a minute and a half from its conclusion, it’s hard for me not to think of Battle Born as the greatest record these guys have ever made. Its certainly the most cohesive – an album about the euphoric innocence and the crushing heartbreak of young love, an album about the inequities of the American dream, but also one that, like Springsteen’s best, finds hope within the darkness in the end. Battle Born is the kind of rock ‘n’ roll record that almost nobody makes anymore: it’s bombastic and excessive and oversized, but it’s also a grand and universal statement, a master class of album structure and sequencing, and a culmination of everything Brandon Flowers and The Killers have done up to this point. There will always be detractors, but to me, The Killers are the best band in the mainstream right now, and this record deserves to be celebrated. Just make sure you play it loud.