“I’m at the top of my lungs/ ’Cause big love cannot be understated…” hollers Brandon Flowers on The Killers’ sixth album. And it’s impossible to doubt the righteous, Mormon zeal of one of the most charismatic frontmen in rock.
Throughout his career, Flowers has spoken often of his devotion to his wife, Tana Mundkowsky, and his commitment to support her through her struggle with mental health issues. He cancelled a solo tour to remain by her side when she was feeling suicidal and moved from Las Vegas (the setting for so many of his songs) to the mountains of Utah when they realised the town was triggering memories of multiple childhood traumas. But… my goodness… I wonder if even Tana occasionally yearns for him to take it down a notch or three. Can’t big love also be expressed without such relentless, evangelical bombast?
It seems not. And while I’d hoped they might have developed a little subtlety as they approached the end of their second decade in the business, I suspect hardcore Killers fans will be relieved to learn that the recent departure of guitarist Robert Keunig and semi-detachment of bassist Mark Stoermer has not caused any drop in volume. Or in the band’s signature juggernaut song formatting that sees them reliably build from angular, post-punky openings towards air-punching, Eighties-Springsteen-indebted euphoria.
But new contributors do add some refreshing shifts in texture, though. Drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr said that working with producers Shawn Everett (War on Drugs, Beck, Kacey Musgraves) and Oxygen’s Jonathan Redo felt “delightfully uncomfortable”. So a song called “Dying Breed” – on which Flowers renews his vows to be Tana’s “diehard/ lifeguard” – launches from a strange, soft pad of motorik synth samples from Can and Neu!, while the biblical imagery of “Fire in Bone” snaps and stretches along to a funky, Talking Headsy bassline, with added Eno-esque weirdness in the top-line keys.
Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham was drafted in to pour a red hot, liquid steel guitar solo over big single “Caution”. “Let me introduce you to the featherweight queen,” the song begins. “She’s got Hollywood eyes/ But you can’t shoot what she’s seen…” The chorus’s repetition of the line “I’m throwing caution” without ever completing the phrase “to the wind” is bound to catch the reckless sing-alongers out, and may well irk the same folk who baulked at the grammatical oddity band’s old line “Are we human or are we dancer?”
But there’s no denying Flowers’s skill as a storyteller. The damaged, “white trash” heroine of “Caution”, we learn, “Doesn’t like birthdays/ They remind her of why/ She can go straight from zero/ To the fourth of July”. He’s surely singing of Vegas when he bawls “If I don’t get out of this town/ I might be the one who finally burns it down…”
Despite recent accusations that members of the band’s former crew treated women badly, Flowers is a powerful male advocate for traumatised women. He writes women you find yourself thinking about long after the feedback fades, as on the countryfied “Blowback”, about a woman “Sitting on a secret/ She didn’t ask for, no girl ever did…” With detail that’s too often lost by the relentless motivational speakerdom of his stadium howl, he invites us to picture her aboard a bus, “sucking on a Tic Tac”, assessing her fellow passengers and “looking for clues”.
Flowers also includes women’s voices this time, including KD Lang, singing as his mother on a song about his parents called “Lightning Fields”. In it, the committed Christian promises there’s no end to truth and love. It may be a slightly face-flattening wind tunnel of love The Killers offer. But they still have the gale force sincerity required to blow your socks off.
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