Verdict: 3 / 5
Who are The Killers? It’s become a fair question to ask, because it’s one the band themselves have yet to answer definitively. Not only by way of their meandering style from album to album, but more so because it seems they haven’t quite decided yet. Battle Born is their fourth studio album, and while their place as potential successors to stadium acts like U2 is safe, it does little to spark the same excitement as their earlier work.
The Killers took their name from a fictional band featured in the New Order music video for ‘Crystal’, going so far as to emulate that video’s neon lighting in the clip for their breakout single ‘Somebody Told Me’. Their intentions seemed pretty clear from the start as they pioneered the synth rock revival of the early 2000s. For a band hailing from the deserts of Las Vegas, Hot Fuss sounded distinctly British, and it’s no wonder they first achieved fame there. They looked closer to home with follow-up Sam’s Town, borrowing from established traditions in rock and Americana that elevated the band’s knack for showmanship and grandiosity. They made good strides at this point in their career, producing arguably their best work. However their reach exceeded their grasp on third album Day & Age, a foray into glam rock with mostly lukewarm results. After a four-year hibernation and a couple of solo projects, Battle Born serves as an amalgamation of The Killers’ previous styles. The problem though, is that it excels at none of them.
The appeal that saw them amass a worldwide following is still present; big chords, galloping drums, and Brandon Flowers’ singing that at times achieves a real sense of triumph. Melody and climax have never been a problem for them, but Battle Born treads dangerously close to mediocre parody. It’s a sign of formulaic wear, because all the bombast is starting to look hollow. The size of the choruses isn’t earned, making the album feel bloated. Maybe they’re just reaching middle age, but the fight and urgency displayed on tracks like ‘Mr Brightside’ and ‘When You Were Young’ is missing here. There’s no sign of a stellar, lift-off track on Battle Born. It’s not necessarily a fault that the album sticks to the mid-tempo range, often leaning towards balladry, but it does feel decidedly tame.
Opening track ‘Flesh and Bone’ shows off the band’s mash up of styles. All the elements are there, Flowers on keyboards, gang vocals, Dave Keuning’s axe work. It’s passable but predictable too, proving to be overly ambitious and not quite reaching the anthemic heights it aims for. Follow up ‘Runaways’ fares better; it’s a smart choice for the album’s first single and achieves a summery reminiscence. The album peaks in the middle with ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’, one of the only songs here deserving of a place alongside the best in The Killers’ cannon. It shows some restraint on an album where modesty is hardly considered. Despite some odd, off-key vocal turns from Flowers, ‘The Rising Tide’ has its merits with lines like: “Until life and the dream collide/ There’s gonna be a mystery underneath those neon lights.” They indulge their fancy for roots rock and country on ‘From Here on Out’. It’s the shortest cut at two and half minutes, but captures an energy that is missing on most of the album. That absence is simply enjoyment because Battle Born predominantly takes itself far too seriously. This is clearest on ‘Here with Me’ and ‘Be Still’; two ambitious ballads that fall almost completely flat. Collectively it’s an album that does not hold up to much critical prodding, which is fine, but asking their audience to follow its slight banality in earnest is an audacious move.
Battle Born is pleasant enough, entirely listenable even, and it will shift umpteen million copies on their name alone. However, after Day & Age stumbled, it’s hard not to see this as a squandered opportunity to really cement a place for themselves in the annals of modern rock. It’s a pity, because The Killers are quite capable of greatness, but they played it safe this time out, content to rest firmly on their laurels. Battle Born is the musical equivalent of smoke and mirrors.