Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas. This is Killers country, and the fearless band has a very good idea of what it looks and sounds like. After a four year hiatus, which spawned commendable solo albums, The Killers — vocalist Brandon Flowers, guitarist Dave Keuning, bassist Mark Stoermer and drummer Ronnie Vannucci, Jr. — return wearing their star-spangled hearts on their sleeves. Battle Born, titled after the motto of the band’s home state, revisits the intimate and epic themes of Sam’s Town, but lacks the idiosyncratic stories that held the band’s sophomore album in place. Though the anthemic tracks on Battle Born possess a surer sound than 2008’s slightly confused pop-rock-synth effort Day and Age and the album offers flashes of brilliance, something is missing — there is no “Mr Brightside,” “When You Were Young” or “Human.”
Everything about Battle Born evokes a drive through the Nevada desert on a cool night. The Killers’ quest to write the new Great American rock song begins with “Runaways,” a sleek track that channels the old Vegas, meat-and-potatoes feel of Brandon Flowers’ solo debut, Flamingo. Probably the best track (by this I mean the one that most closely approximates The Killers’ usual greatness), “Runaways” sounds like a more subdued and subtle take on “When You Were Young,” but falls short of overwhelming the listener. Vocally, Flowers has never been more stunning; with wistful tenderness, he delivers the lines of a young father whose family is breaking down, “We used to look at the stars / and confess our dreams … we used to laugh / now we only fight / baby are you lonesome now.”
On “The Rising Tide,” The Killers become spacemen on a joy ride. The crescendo of space-age riffs and fantastical synth strains (angels give way to aliens in the ethereal realms) convince you that there really is a “mystery underneath those neon lights.” That line is not the only moment that appears to borrow from Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” and The Killers prove that they can take on and even improve the rock legend’s kind of music.
The joys and uncertainties of young, wild love are finally tackled with success on “The Way It Was.” The echoes of doo-wop and old school rock-and-roll guitar make the upbeat track stand out, and Flowers packs in a heart-wrenching vocal performance. Some stellar lyrics color the space with emotion: “Somewhere along the lonely Esmerelda county line, the question of my heart came to my mind.”
On “Miss Atomic Bomb” (title courtesy of Elton John), the boy with the “eager eyes” looks back on the neon nights that drove the wretched desperation of “Mr Brightside,” the powerhouse track off Hot Fuss that validated the band’s rock star aspirations. The theatrical “Mr Brightside” recalls thrashed, glorious hotel rooms and epitomizes the band’s eyeliner phase — Flowers snarls like a young, Definitely Maybe-era Liam Gallagher, and Keuning struts through the track with a memorably bright guitar riff. Possibly inspired by Nevada’s nuclear-testing (the mentions of “mushroom clouds” and flying dust are telling), “Miss Atomic Bomb” evokes cars and pulses racing along a dark, desolate highway — just like nearly all the songs on Battle Born. Though spacious and pleasant, the placid “Miss Atomic Bomb” disappoints next to its heady predecessor.
For the most part, Flowers’ lively brand of religious imagery accentuates the romance of the American highway that pervades the album. “Heart of a Girl” contains lines that are as awkward as its title. Dire Straits meets Lou Reed in the tender rock ballad, with a melody that sounds suspiciously like a truncated version of Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet” (which, despite his protests, Flowers covered brilliantly during the The Killers’ first Abbey Road outing). Nevertheless, Flowers is so sweetly earnest that he can get away with anything, and the gospel flourish legitimizes the track’s unwieldy metaphors and honeyed sentiments. As the song closes, Flowers is joined by a gospel choir (a throwback to the band’s early masterpiece “All These Things That I Have Done”), in a burst of strength that is probably symbolic.
Battle Born is one very long road trip. It is mostly a thrilling, pleasant ride; the band performs as confidently and astoundingly as ever, and they will go on to conquer sold-out stadiums. But there are few particularly striking sights. “Be Still” is a beautifully sonorous track, which sketches vistas as wide and hazy as those conjured by U2’s The Joshua Tree. The tenderly-delivered lines (“Is this real or just a dream,” “Rise up like the sun / labor till you’re done”) are oddly familiar plays on cliches that recall the cool and exuberant “Read My Mind” from Sam’s Town. Like most of Battle Born, we have heard it all before, and far more eloquently, from none other than Flowers, et al.