Saturday, March 26, 2016

Brandon Flowers - The Desired Effect

Of all the words you could use to describe him, you could never call Brandon Flowers complacent. In the wake of writing arguably the breakout debut album of the 2000s, this Mormon missionary turned rock and roll frontman could easily have coasted. The Killers' Hot Fuss made a tremendous splash when it came out, slinging enough sky-scraping pop hooks and 80s throwback synths to get on the radio, but still roaring with enough memorable guitar leads to get the classic rock crowd onboard. The band's glitzy sound and off-the-wall lyrics reflected the topsy turvy nature of Las Vegas—their hometown—providing listeners with precisely the type of escape they were looking for in the politically embattled, war-torn landscapes of 2004.

If Flowers had wanted to remain a radio darling, he could have stayed there, in the musical niche he carved out for himself on his first album. No one would have said no to another Hot Fuss, and while a refusal to change would have undoubtedly resulted in a trend of ever-diminishing returns (see Franz Ferdinand), it would have at least allowed The Killers to stay on the radio and make a living in music without ever really venturing out of their comfort zone.

"Fuck that," Flowers said.

At least that's a phrase I assume Brandon Flowers must have uttered to his bandmates at some point during the ramp up to 2006's Sam's Town. Instead of writing another Hot Fuss, he ran straight in the opposite direction, ditching the glam of his debut for an unabashed, shamelessly earnest heartland rock album. Critics savaged it and many fans hated it, but in those songs was displayed Brandon Flowers' unwillingness to conform, to settle, or to attempt to please, and that unwavering commitment to his own vision has defined every album that this polarizing, big-talking frontman has had a hand in since. The Killers may be a four-piece band, but there's never been any doubt about who was steering the ship.

All of that is what makes The Desired Effect, Flowers' second solo LP and his first in five years, so remarkable. For the first time ever, it feels like the 33-year-old rockstar is loosening his grip on the wheel and letting someone else take control. That "someone else" is producer Ariel Rechtshaid, whose resume includes albums by the likes of Vampire Weekend (Modern Vampires of the City), Haim (Days Are Gone), and even Valencia (We All Need a Reason to Believe). Where Flowers' 2010 disc, Flamingo, felt like a Killers album recorded without the rest of The Killers (thanks in part to obvious producer choices like Stuart Price, Daniel Lanois, and Brendan O'Brien), this one actually seems to embrace the fact that it is a solo record. Flowers has gone on record saying that Rechtshaid pushed him a lot in the studio, and you can hear that in the songs. Case in point is lead single "Can't Deny My Love," which is up there with "Mr. Brightside" as the biggest earworm Flowers has ever written. Boasting laser-blast synths, beat-heavy production, and the year's most sing-along worthy chorus, "Can't Deny My Love" is precisely what you would hope for from the team up of a mad scientist pop producer and the guy who wrote the best radio rock singles of the 2000s.

Throughout its fleet 10-song tracklist, The Desired Effect alternates between songs that could have been on Killers albums, and songs that wouldn't have been caught dead within 1,000 feet of Killers albums. Leadoff track "Dreams Come True" straddles the line between the two, kicking off with E Street horn blasts and shooting through a Gaslight Anthem-style chorus, but ultimately reaching its climax with a wordless refrain that borrows from world music styles like Paul Simon did on Graceland. Album highlight "Between Me and You" falls more in the Killers wheelhouse as well, and could legitimately have been a b-side from Battle Born. Lyrics like "All my life I've been told 'follow your dreams'/But the trail went cold," and "These hours I'm working ain't nearly enough/And chasing every dollar girl, is this what I was born to do?" reflect that album's themes of reaching for escapism and fighting for the American Dream. Half Tunnel of Love-era Springsteen, Half So-era Peter Gabriel, "Between Me and You" is a ballad with real stakes, and one of Flowers' best songs. Bruce Hornsby shows up on keyboard to lend an air of authenticity to the proceedings, while Rechtshaid takes the song to the next level, trading his normally bombastic production style for a more subdued arrangement, but still allowing certain moments (like the electric guitar accents on the bridge) to spark with thunderous intensity.

Elsewhere, though, Flowers defers more to Rechtshaid's wheelhouse style, which is big, unabashed throwback 80s pop. Many of these songs are nearly bursting at the seams with electronic instrumentation and production flourishes, their arrangements a perfect fit for a producer with a such a maximalist, go-for-broke style. Not that Flowers wouldn't have taken these roads without Rechtshaid in the co-pilot seat. On the contrary, when we last heard from Flowers—with "Shot at the Night" and "Just Another Girl," the two new songs included with The Killers' 2013 greatest hits package—Flowers was already exploring 80s pop styles, and here, he embraces that side of his sound wholeheartedly. "Untangled Love" plays like a lost cut from Born in the U.S.A., "Still Want You" is Bowie by way of Billy Joel, and "Lonely Town" operates in the same John Hughes movie universe that inspired M83's Saturdays=Youth.

M83's Anthony Gonzalez actually produced "Shot at the Night" from Direct Hits, and his style for writing and arranging songs has clearly rubbed off on Flowers here. "Lonely Town" is so jam-packed with thick synthesizers, electronic drumbeats, multi-tracked vocals, gospel choirs, and ambient production flourishes that it seems fit to burst. "Never Get You Right" is similarly big, with swirling electric guitars, out-of-the-blue string samples, and blissfully cheesy backup vocal lines. The mixing on these two tracks in particular (provided by longtime Killers collaborator Alan Moulder) is stunning, making use of right and left channel panning for exquisite atmospheric effect. With so much going on in these songs, they could easily have become overstuffed, but Moulder balances everything perfectly, creating a swell of sound that surrounds you with its hugeness, but doesn't lose clarity in the process. Suffice to say, this is a record that demands to be listened to on a pair of good headphones (though I can't imagine how most of these songs will be able to translate live).

Beyond the production values, what ultimately makes The Desired Effect a great album (and an improvement over Flamingo) is just how dynamic it is. Everything I've discussed so far—the horn-fueled Americana of "Dreams Come True," the rain-soaked Gabriel vibe of "Between Me and You," the maximalist 80s anthems worthy of a Passion Pit record—is a style that could have easily been expanded and explored on a full-album basis. Instead of just settling for one musical niche, though, Flowers hops styles on almost every track. "Diggin' up the Heart" is synth-fueled rockabilly; "Still Want You" recalls the steel-drum, Caribbean flavor of overlooked Day & Age highlight "I Can't Stay"; and "I Can Change" is ice-cold, Antarctic new wave, featuring a cameo from Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant on keyboard.

Not all of these left turns will resonate with every listener. I've already seen "Diggin' up the Heart" and "Still Want You" labeled as weak points, and that makes sense: they're where Flowers sounds least comfortable. But isn't that what solo albums or side projects should be? Chances for an artist to try out less familiar and more eccentric ideas that might get vetoed by their bandmates? In that case, The Desired Effect is an unqualified success, giving Brandon Flowers the opportunities at growth and change that he didn't really afford himself on Flamingo. As a result, this seems like an album that could covert many of Flowers' detractors, though there are still plenty of moments that will appeal to Killers fans.

Album closer "The Way it's Always Been," especially, is classic Flowers, playing like a less bombastic, more stripped down version of Battle Born's climactic title track. Flowers has expressed his desire to get back onto pop radio with The Desired Effect, and there's little doubt that one of these songs will get him there ("Can't Deny My Love" is fairly easily the year's best pop single.). But for four minutes on "The Way it's Always Been," he turns inward, exploring themes of God and spirituality, home, youth, and how things change (and stay the same) over time. "I took a long walk yesterday/To a field where I used to play," Flowers sings, on the heavily Beatles-influenced bridge. "I saw myself in the corner of my mind/I was 12 years old and blind/To the big wheel and the grind." It's a refreshingly personal conclusion to an album that often scans huge and universal, and it's the perfect encapsulation of who Flowers is (and has always been) as an artist: cocky and confident enough to strive for the biggest influences and comparisons, talented enough to pull them off, and so earnest in his lyrical approach and vocal delivery that he consistently reveals the human beneath the rock star façade. Or should I say pop star?

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