A Review of The Killers’ Battle Born: May Be Born of Battle, But It’s Mellowed By Age
OK, here’s how I’m going to break this down.
I’m going to give you the skinny first, so those of you who have no attention spans can —
If you’re looking for Hot Fuss or even Sam’s Town (which is looking less and less like a departure from their beginnings with each consecutive album), save your money, because you’re going to be disappointed. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of Flamingo, Flowers’ solo album, this should be right up your alley.
Now that we got that out of the way…
The rest is for fans like me who’ve been following these guys for at minimum eight years (you’ll have to forgive me, but I wasn’t following them before, as I didn’t live in Vegas then and had no other way of knowing about them) and want to have a more in-depth discussion about the album, the band, etc. Keep in mind that my taste can be best encapsulated by listing my very-hard-to-narrow top 10 favorite Killers songs (in no particular order), so you may disagree with my overall assessment if you disagree with this fundamental basis for judgment:
1) “Mr. Brightside”
2) “All These Things That I’ve Done”
3) “Midnight Show”
4) “Glamorous Indie Rock and Roll”
5) “When You Were Young”
6) “Read My Mind”
7) “This River Is Wild”
8) “Sweet Talk”
10) “This Is Your Life”
So, Battle Born. Well, first off, for those of you who don’t know, this is a reference to the state of Nevada. It actually appears on the back of our driver licenses. It refers to the fact that the state entered into the Union during the Civil War. This is an interesting and fitting title for the album, then, since many of these songs seem to be about another kind of Civil War – the more domestic kind.
Before I go any further, let me just say that, as a creative writer, I do not make the mistake of assuming any of these songs are autobiographical; still, there is a sort of story or theme to each album just as there is to any book — fiction, nonfiction, or otherwise — and I’m speaking to that.
This is a band who’s been telling a story, album by album, of what growing up can be like. Whether it’s their “real” life story or not is somewhat irrelevant… unless you’re hoping to marry one of The Killers, in which case, I completely sympathize with your plight.
Just kidding. Sort of.
Hot Fuss was the somewhat typical portrayal (though still well done, IMO) of the 20-something relationship experience — filled with all that fun angst, betrayal, bitterness, revenge, awkwardness, and yearning to be more (or at the very least something else). There’s a definite distance between the characters speaking the lyrics and the person/people those characters are speaking to, but this actually serves to make the songs more accessible to the audience; in other words, this could be us talking to a lover, friend, or even ourselves in many cases.
In Sam’s Town, you see youth’s naivete about the world dissolve even more, but there seems to be a newfound confidence that accompanies this awareness. The characters speaking seem to have something they want to teach us, and only with a few exceptions do the songs seem meant for one particular party.
(Then came Sawdust, but that was really just a compilation of tracks that hadn’t made the final cut for the first two albums, so that didn’t really have a theme, per se, except to say that the songs were similar in sound to the other 2001-2006 stuff.)
In Day & Age, the problems of superstardom surface lyrically every once in a while — which is hard to relate to as mere mortals, though there still is a large focus on telling a variety of stories that could describe many of the types you would meet in a place like Vegas (although you don’t need to be in Vegas to meet any of these types by any stretch of the imagination).
But with Battle Born, many things have changed. Whereas the songs on Day & Age and even Flamingo seem to be a bit more “in this thing together, facing the world and all it’s taken out of us now that fame and fortune have come into the picture,” the songs on Battle Born seem to reflect cracks in the very foundation of any “we”; life, celebrityhood, or whatever else the universe has thrown this way is finally taking its toll. The attempts to maintain normalcy seem to have been ineffective, and there is a sense of loss when reflecting on the past and “the way we were.” The songs very much feel like they’re intended for a very specific beloved possessing a very specific history with the character singing, which at times makes the tracks unusually inaccessible to listeners.
If we depended on The Killers’ characters to get us past the bouncer and into the private area of the club to see what’s going on behind all the smoke and mirrors (Hot Fuss), we’ll have to find some other connections now, because the old ones are too busy staying at home being domestic — raising kids, fighting to save marriages, and the like — to hook us up.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s just a band like any other that’s changing and evolving. This feeling of being “all grown up now” just seems to me to be peculiarly noticeable on this album compared to the others, and that’s not going to jive with everyone. And them’s just the breaks.
Even the pacing of the music on this album reflects this. While at times, you have the whole band rocking out, it doesn’t really trick the listener (at least not this one) into noticing these aren’t slower songs overall. Perhaps angst is fast-paced and despair is slow-paced — I don’t know. But regardless, this album is the mellowest of all they’ve put out thus far as a group.
Let’s go through the individual tracks, shall we?
1) “Flesh and Bone”: This is a weird song about coming into one’s own but recognizing there’s one battle none of us will ever win. It’s a bit schizophrenic, but this makes sense in a poetic sort of way; after all, flesh is very different from bone. It’s refreshing, in the sense that it takes a lot of risks, but it ends up being sort of mishmash to this listener.
Reminds me most of: If “Sam’s Town” and “Human” had a kid.
2) “Runaways”: This is one of those songs for an audience of one, but if you’re all about that, it’s pretty good. It’s interesting to hear a love song that seems like it’s for adults only; I don’t find that this track has any sort of ageless, timeless feel to it. It’s also interesting to note that it seems more important to tell stories outright on this whole album than to be clever in the lyrics (like how things are communicated in “Somebody Told Me,” for example).
Reminds me most of: “Crossfire” off Flamingo — which I think makes it a weird choice as the album-promoting single for a Killers album.
3) “The Way It Was”: Not surprisingly, this is one of my favorites. It reminds me of a few of my current favorites, and I like more melodic, steady songs in general. It’s another love song, but again, this is an older (as in “been together for a while,” not “senior citizens”) couple we’re dealing with here, so its accessibility it going to be limited. (Nice reference to watching planes at McCarran, though. Locals will definitely enjoy that.)
Reminds me most of: The sound of “This Is Your Life” and the mood/subject of “Read My Mind.” A bit like “Only the Young” off Flamingo, too.
4) “Here With Me”: I am convinced most people will like this slow jam, though there is something about it that reminds me of Richard Marx, and I’m not sure how to feel about that. Also, technology references in songs are romantic in no way ever. “Don’t want your picture on my cell phone”? I know my boys can do better than that!
Reminds me most of: “A Dustland Fairytale.” Also reminds me of “Hard Enough” off Flamingo.
5) “A Matter of Time”: The flip-flopping lyrical themes of malaise in the present and fonder reminiscence over the past are matched well by the music in this track. Lyrically, we get a touch of that bitter cleverness we know well from a Hot Fuss love song — only this time, the sense of doom is not in the character’s head, but out there in the open with respect to this aged relationship.
Reminds me most of: A mellower variation of “Midnight Show” and “All the Pretty Faces”… and, oddly enough, a mix between the beginning of a CSI: New York and a CSI: Miami episode. (And you should watch this CSI-related link just for the hell of it.)
6) “Deadlines and Commitments”: From an aural perspective, this one didn’t immediately remind me of anything The Killers as a group have done before — which is not to say it’s a departure from The Killers’ typical sound (like “I Can’t Stay” or “Joyride” are), but that it doesn’t really sound like any of the songs they’ve put out before. You can decide whether that’s a good or bad thing. The topic, however, is more familiar; it’s about the down and out — a common theme for Vegas in general. Just ask our “tourism” officials.
Reminds me most of: “Bling.” And “Jacksonville” off Flamingo. And the typical ’80s Pet Shop Boys sound in general.
7) “Miss Atomic Bomb”: This is more universal, but it’s still a “What went wrong?” love song. It’s pretty good.
Reminds me most of: “Human.” But more “Hard Enough” from Flamingo.
8) “The Rising Tide”: Another more universal song than most on the album. It’s not overtly about love, so the interpretation leaves it more accessible to a general audience. It’s also one of the faster tracks.
Reminds me most of: A less catchy “For Reasons Unknown” or “This River Is Wild.”
9) “Heart of a Girl”: This one starts off very minimalist, with just vocals and an acoustic guitar, and the theme is accessible — yes, even if you’re not a girl. Like “Deadlines and Commitments,” it reminds me least of songs The Killers have done before… although it reminds me very much of something one of my exes would’ve come up. Well, him or Sarah McLaughlin, which probably doesn’t say much for him. 😉
Reminds me most of: “My List,” but even I admit that’s a big stretch.
10) “From Here on Out”: The Killers go country. Wait — The Killers go country? Yep, The Killers go country. Consider yourself warned. I predict an album from either The Killers or Flowers separately that will be entirely country at some point in the future. Again, you have been warned.
Reminds me most of: “The Clock Was Tickin'” off Flamingo. And nu country. And John Cougar Mellencamp, even though he’s not really country.
11) “Be Still”: A pretty one. A bit generic lyrically, but a good, accessible message nevertheless. I happen to be fond of the re-envisioning of all the old cliches about being yourself in the lyrics “If they drag you through the mud / It doesn’t change what’s in your blood.”
Reminds me most of: “Goodnight, Travel Well” and “My List.” “On the Floor” off Flamingo, too.
12) “Battle Born”: A more playful song lyrically, but with a serious theme. And an American one too (a la “Sam’s Town”). And I just realized there are an awful lot of horse or horse-related references in this album.
Reminds me most of: “Neon Tiger,” though I like that song better. And CSI again.
Overall, I found my favorites off this album (Tracks 3, 6, 7, 9, and 11) were the slower songs — which is strange, being a big fan of Hot Fuss. However, I think that’s mainly because 1) I found the lyrics of these songs more accessible, and 2) I’m not sure I’m on board yet with all the dramatic shifts sonically within a single song that appear in many of the other tracks. Call me old-fashioned, but I like my Killers a little more predictable and would prefer the style experimentations to take place across a whole album (so, one country song in there, if they absolutely must) instead of so many shifts within a single track (as we hear in songs like “Flesh and Bone”). If I can’t have the overall general sound of Hot Fuss, though, I’ll take less disjointed melodies, perhaps at the cost of those melodies being on the mellower side.
Also, while I do appreciate how the themes of the lyrics have changed — and I will always be a fan — it would be great if the band somehow managed to capture the pace, drama, and lyrical cleverness of the earlier albums while tackling those maturer topics that seem to intrigue them these days as well.