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The Killers, ‘Battle Born’ (Vertigo/Island)

Last band standing / The Killers
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: September 18, 2012
Label: Vertigo/Island

Think back to what constituted “rock” when the Killers broke out in 2004. Bands were back. New York rediscovered post-punk. Disco was no longer a dirty word to dudes with guitars. And even the emo kids started buying drum machines. But eight years on, what happened to all those dressed-up guys rocking the dance floor? The White Stripes, LCD Soundsystem, Fall Out Boy, all gone; the Vines, the Bravery, Panic! at the Disco, all forgotten; Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, the Hives, barely hanging on. Who would’ve predicted that beyond the Strokes (and should they ever get it back together, those abominable Kings of Leon), the only remaining band with a seemingly unbeatable blazers + hooks + riffs + grooves + cheekbones combo still threatening to sustain their run as an international, cross-generational arena-rock phenomenon would be the one behind “Mr. Brightside”?

And yet the indie crowd and much of the media still slam them. Many critics can’t accept a bridge that unites the seemingly incompatible kingdoms of Morrissey and Bruce Springsteen, and therefore an incredulous, bullying tone follows the Killers everywhere. There’s the implication that frontman Brandon Flowers’ Mormon faith and apparent lack of self-destructive tendencies makes him unfit to rock; it’s the 21st century, dudes have been wearing eyeliner since Elvis, and yet even Pitchfork has called the band’s stage presence “prissy.” Their lyrics are shot full of holes, yet if Animal Collective had come up with “Are we human, or are we dancer?” they’d be hailed as cryptic geniuses. Rarely do the Killers get credit for being one of the few working-class bands with the temerity and talent to achieve populist yet defiantly arty rock stardom at a time when even middle-class musicians with better educations don’t dare dream of transcending the Brooklyn boho ghetto.

This innately Vegas quartet have aspirations, it’s true, and to some, that makes them uncool, maybe obsolete. Battle Born, which refers to the insignia on the flag of their beloved Nevada, their own Vegas home studio, and quite possibly their own stance within the music world, boasts the roar of a band working extremely hard in a manner that’s become not just aesthetically unfashionable, but also economically unfeasible. Their fourth album (and first in four years) employs five hotshot producers, sometimes in pairs, and required a year of recording. Had it been made entirely in New York, it might’ve bankrupted a smaller label. Fittingly, the outcome is huge: Those who found 2006’s divisive Sam’s Town overly bombastic will have a field day with this one.

Starting with synth bleeps that give way to a galloping spaghetti Western extravaganza, opener “Flesh and Bone,” like first single “Runaways,” piles the white-knuckled histrionics high. Years spent touring and taking singing lessons have reached critical mass, and so Flowers wails notes way outside the range of the clipped 22-year-old who sneered through “Somebody Told Me,” and he’s describing his struggles via the equally operatic pop-culture shorthand that defines his writing style: He’s a “raging bull” who is “penetrating the force fields” but “running out of time.” Accordingly, the Springsteen-isms of Sam’s Town have returned in a big way, but this time those thunderous power chords and Phil Spector-schooled drum rolls are complimented by synth balm far more soothing than the quartet’s usual New Order riffs. In rebuffing their critics, these dreamers embrace the super-emotive ’80s bands the critics of that era also loathed — Alphaville, Simple Minds, Ultravox, Tears for Fears, Cock Robin, Icehouse, even Mr. Mister — with results that are more heartland-friendly and more Euro-romantic than ever.

It’s a perverse, audacious strategy, but it works because there’s never a moment when the melodrama is doodle-y, dull, or indulgent, as it was on all the group’s recent solo jaunts. By contrast, Battle Born is a full-on band opus: This is where the Killers confront their personal and professional doubts, and achieve an unmistakable, unrelenting us-against-them cohesion.

The album’s structure is just as solid. Beginning and ending with a bang, BB rises and falls and accelerates and slows down with a classic LP arc that disappeared when frontloaded CDs took over. For the first time, the ballads are as memorable as the dance cuts, particularly “Here with Me,” a tearjerker written by Flowers and Travis frontman Fran Healy in the mold of, yes, Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.” The singer pines for his lost love, but when he spots her at a restaurant, he can’t bear a confrontation, and turns tail. That’s what real people do, and it signals a breakthrough: Every lyric is rooted in relatable, everyday experience, not just other pop songs. Several struggle with domestic arrangements on the verge of collapse: Flowers longs for “The Way It Was” with his beloved, while on “A Matter of Time,” he despairs over a relationship’s seemingly inevitable end, moaning, “Here’s the towel, throw it in.”

Flowers is now 31; the others are 35 or 36. Saxophone sideman Thomas Marth killed himself last April; Flowers’ mom died in 2010. And so Battle Born tackles maturity and mortality with a newfound sense of gravity. But all of this wouldn’t matter if the songs didn’t soar, and it’s the combination of lyrical weight and melodic weightlessness that makes this record work. On “Deadlines and Commitments,” Flowers’ words are compassionate, but it’s really his uplifting vocal, and the interconnected harmonic hooks that swirl around him, that pulls the song skyward.

Everything here takes flight like that, and it’ll all stay in your head longer than something allegedly much more of-the-moment, which explains why the Killers have already outlasted so many of their peers. Although Battle Born acknowledges hard times, it’s ultimately hopeful, and although it may not be in style, it’s there when we need it. Like now.