Tuesday, September 18, 2012

album review: 'battle born' by the killers

Do any of you remember the music scene in 2004?

If you don't, you should. 2004 was a year where pop music delivered songs that were both critically acclaimed and amazingly popular. The trademark song of that year, 'Yeah' by Usher and featuring Lil Jon and Ludacris, came off of Usher's hit album Confessions and managed to catapult him straight into the A-List. This was also the year that Kanye West exploded into the mainstream, the year 'Hey Ya!' by OutKast charted, the year where gangster rap hit the critical junction of mainstream success and high quality. 

And it wasn't just in hip-hop either. On the metal front, rap metal had finally imploded (with the exception of Linkin Park, who released the relatively solid Meteora that year), and nu metal was on its last legs, with Evanescence experiencing their final puff of popularity before returning to irrelevancy (and the world rejoiced). This was also the year Within Temptation released The Silent Force and Nightwish released Once, the latter Nightwish's biggest hit album driven on the strength of its great singles. This was also the year Arjen Lucassen's Ayreon project released The Human Equation, one of my favourite metal albums of all time. I mean, holy shit, that's a whole lot of awesome, even it isn't tied directly to the mainstream.

But if we are talking about the mainstream, we have to talk about rock music. Post-grunge was thankfully dying off, and people were searching for what would be the next advancement in the genre. Some thought it'd be pop rock or punk rock, driven on the helm of Jimmy Eat World and Green Day. Hell, Green Day released American Idiot in 2004, which was both a critical success and a huge hit, driving Green Day into a resurgence of popularity, and propelling bands embracing the emo aesthetic to the forefront. If I'm being  embarrassingly honest, I don't think this is a bad thing - I like pop-rock, and both Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco made great albums in the following years.

But even that's not the most interesting thing that happened in the 2004 rock scene - because that was the year indie rock exploded into the mainstream. This was the year where Franz Ferdinand, Modest Mouse, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Arcade Fire, the Garden State soundtrack, where all of these acts somehow managed to gain mainstream attention and acclaim, and for a few brief seconds, there was a hope that indie rock might actually take hold in the modern consciousness and become the 'new grunge'.

That didn't happen. And for the reason why, I blame The Killers.


Don't get me wrong, I don't think The Killers are a bad band. Hell, most of the time, I'd call them pretty damn great in comparison to the rest of mainstream radio. But The Killers were at the forefront of the indie rock explosion in 2004, and the band's subsequent decline likely contributed to the fact that indie rock just didn't stick. 

Part of this is the nature of The Killers themselves. The band isn't an 'album band', one that makes consistent broader album statements, like Radiohead. No, The Killers are a 'singles band', one that gains mainstream acceptance based upon powerful, catchy singles that stick in the mind. And when The Killers released Hot Fuss, an album loaded to the brim with catchy, hit-worthy singles, I genuinely thought the band would have a longer shelf life on mainstream radio if they kept up the hits.

Instead, they released Sam's Town, an album that was a love letter to American culture - and that completely squandered all of the momentum the band had built. Don't get me wrong, there were a couple great singles, but the synth-rock, New Wave style that was iconic about The Killers (at least in the modern pop landscape) had been sucked away and replaced with rougher rock styling that didn't quite stand out amongst the crowd. I haven't listened to this album for a long time, and the reason for it is because nothing really stuck with me from that album. It wasn't unique, and it just wasn't all that special. 

What worse is that the 'reinvention' of the band didn't stick. On their next album, Day & Age, The Killers went right back to the synth-driven indie rock - and while I appreciated the shift and liked the album a lot more, it still felt like something had been lost along the way. A certain desperate edge had been lost in the transition, and it made the album lose some personality. Granted, it wasn't bad per se, but it should have been so much better. In the mean time, they released a great live album and established a reputation as one of the best live touring bands in indie rock, but with the absence of potent singles, it's no surprise the band lost popularity.

But then again, I think some of that was inevitable, because The Killers as an act never really seemed built to last. Even at their best, the lyrics on tracks by The Killers were ephemeral and lacking weight - at worst, they were completely disposable. And as for the music, while it was new-ish and potent when compared to pop radio, there just wasn't enough instrumental substance to give The Killers any definite indie credit. It gets even worse when you consider the truth that The Killers, in comparison to the New Wave and Dark Wave bands of the 80s, just aren't that interesting compared to Japan or Depeche Mode or Ultravox or The Cure or New Order. What made Hot Fuss work was the intensity of the delivery and some catchy hooks - but when the intensity began to die, what was left besides a pretty average New Wave band with a few great singles and a distinct lack of personality?

Well, I listened to The Killers' most recent album, Battle Born, and I've come to an answer - or rather, I got caught off-guard. I had assumed that the trend of the intensity leaving The Killers would continue, but it turns out I was actually wrong. In fact, you can easily say that Battle Born is the first album since Hot Fuss where they sound like they give a damn about the songs they're singing. And that's refreshing, at least.

Of course, the lyrics of said songs leave a bit of something to be desired. It's not that they're bad or bizarre like they've been before ('Are we human, or are we dancer?'), but they are curiously overwritten. This is a strange phenomenon you occasionally see where instead of having more restraint with the song's natural meter, the phrases are instead a bit cluttered, with extra words crammed onto the line. There's a delicate balance between making this have impact and making it appear kind of pointless, and The Killers definitely fall towards the latter category here.

As for the lyrical content itself, what's curious is the subject matter. It seems that the band is returning to the American kitsch that they used with Sam's Town, but this time framed a different way. The desperate, angry edge is replaced a wistfulness that some reviewers have already mentioned reminds them somewhat of Bruce Springsteen and Born To Run, but I don't think it's an apt comparison. The Killers are far too polished and campy to reach Springsteen's level, and while there might be certain similarities in the subject matter, it's not the best comparison point.

In fact, it wasn't until I was a few songs in and I noticed the increased bombast, both through choral overdubs and driving instrumentation, that I actually began to find a good comparison for Battle Born. It's not Springsteen, and it's certainly not any one of The Killers albums of the past.

No, Battle Born feels like a modernized, younger Meat Loaf album, and I mean that as the highest possible compliment. And between the sweeping pomp and bombast of the instrumentation (driven by perhaps some of the best electronic supporting tracks that manage epic scope in a way I didn't think was possible), the overwritten, Steinman-esque lyrics about teenage angst and rebellion drenched in old-school American culture, and the vocals that toe the line between rock and theatre, I don't know why I didn't see it earlier.

And not only did this shift come completely out of left field for me, it's also one that puts me in a bit of an awkward place, partially because I'm a huge Meat Loaf fan. And in a lot of ways, Battle Born feels like it's taking a template Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman created and pressing their brand of indie pop rock through it. And while I can't say that's a bad thing by any stretch of the mind (I think between this and my love for power and symphonic metal, I'm hard-wired to like this sort of thing), it does come across as a stylistic appropriation instead of trying something new.

But then again, this is The Killers, a band that's never done anything all that revolutionary within their own genre, and I'd argue that attempting to make New Wave baroque and epic is a new step all by itself. And particularly considering the steep decline in quality in Meat Loaf's music over the past few years, I don't really have much of a problem with The Killers attempting to fill that role (just as fun.'s attempting to replace Queen and not doing all that bad of a job for it). In fact, the Killers sound their best on this album when they're attempting a song in the Meat Loaf mold - the few songs they attempt outside of it ('Heart Of A Girl' and 'From Here On Out') aren't nearly as good and don't have nearly the same energy. The band still hasn't quite nailed the potent strength of a Meat Loaf ballad or decided to write songs of epic length - all of these tracks could at least get radio play without cutting them - but there are a lot of steps taken in the right direction. Plus, The Killers actually manage to embrace modernity with their electronic elements while still remaining somewhat epic - something Meat Loaf himself couldn't do.

Look, I'm never going to be the biggest fan of The Killers - their lyrics just aren't anywhere close to being good enough to stick with me and be memorable - but I can't help but think that this step towards reinvention is their best yet. It's not bland like Sam's Town and it's not empty like Day & Age. The band has a natural talent for 'big' music that sounds and feels epic, and if they want to embrace the broad Wagnerian scope that Meat Loaf perfected,  I'm not going to complain. I can see how this will alienate their indie rock audience because of the theatre of it all, but The Killers seem a natural fit for this environment. 

And if they want to bring to the mainstream the epic camp of baroque New Wave... well, I'll be there like a bat out of hell.

4 comments:

  1. Why do you think that indie rock failed to catch on? It seems like there was a time of clutter of indie and "the" alt-rock bands (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indie_landfill). But even if there was a Jet for every the Strokes, and a She Wants Revenge for every Interpol, at least the Strokes and Interpol still had their place. How did indie music shift into acts like the Animal Collective, MGMT, and so on, to whatever it is now?

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  2. I'm referring more to the mainstream charts with regards to indie rock. Of course indie music kept evolving in its own sphere, but in the mainstream, the burst of indie rock in 2004 to the mainstream consciousness, to say nothing of the charts, was more of a flash in the pan. And as much as they got critical acclaim (some deserved, some not so much), they stayed within their niche. Definitely a shame, I can say that.

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  3. Sorry, I guess I'm specifically referring to the post-punk/garage rock revival movement that indie rock in 2004 was chiefly characterized by. You seem to have a cogent understanding of music history trends, how would you describe what happened to indie music after the groups of 2004 faded away? What do you are the major trends in indie music that replaced them in the last eight years?

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