If new Killers album Battle Born sounds like an arena-rocking cross between U2 and Bruce Springsteen, with a sprinkling of heart-sleeved Brit-pop tossed in there too, that's entirely the populistic point.
Not only are Brandon Flowers & Co. loyal to the largeness of their Las Vegas homeland (the record's rallying-cry title is on the Nevada state flag), they're unabashed believers in biting — respectfully so — from their musical heroes. They still indulge in swirly synth nods to the Pet Shop Boys and '80s-spawned New Romantics, but on their fourth LP, their main influences are much more swaggerful.
Just check out the list of Battle Born's all-star producers and co-writers: Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite are U2 loyalists, both of whom worked on Bono and the Dublin boys' Joshua Tree. You can hear that tingly Where the Streets Have No Name expanse and crescendo on opening track Flesh and Bone. Fran Healy, from '90s Scottish band Travis, helps the lovesick boys write prom-sized breakup beauty Here With Me ("I don't want your picture / On my cellphone / I want you here with me"). That song is so good, so seductive, I must have listened to it six straight times.
But hey, who wouldn't want to work with the Killers? Led by Flowers, they aim high and mighty, no room for subtlety in this quartet, no room for artifice, either. They believe in what they're emoting, and they believe robustly. I had to laugh the first time I heard galloping single Runaways ("Teenage rush, she said / Ain't we all just runaways / We got time / But that ain't much"), which is both a great track and, for that matter, a makeshift sequel to Springsteen's Born to Run. It's no coincidence that the track was produced by Brendan O'Brien, who was the Boss's man for years.
At a time when pop and rock radio is filled with acts trying to adapt to the times and trends, the Killers know exactly who they want to be when they grow up. Battle Born eventually gets too big for its own good; the anthems start to lose their oomph toward the end. The Killers did the same thing with '04 debut Hot Fuss — head-spinning neo-gospel march All These Things That I've Done ("I've got soul but I'm not a soldier") was the fifth track but it was pretty much the finale, too.
So yes, after a strong start, there are cluttered moments. Deadlines and Commitments aims to rouse as well; there's a thumpy drum part for Ronnie Vannucci, but the song trips itself, too many words and bleep-bloop tricks. The Rising Tide is nerdy postpunk, a novelty at best, filler at worst. "Let's go out tonight / There's a mystery under the neon light." C'mon, that's way too easy, guys.
More often that not, though, Battle Born gets the blood pumping. Miss Atomic Bomb sounds like shiny exit music John Hughes would have used for a teen-defiant Molly Ringwald — and yes, the song explodes just as the name promises. Heart of a Girl is a slow-build tutorial in seduction, and producer Lanois gives Flowers cheeky carte blanche to raid Bono's randy vocal tricks.
Appropriately enough, the closing title track is a kitchen-sink, full-tilt-boogie dustup of whatever energy and ideas the band has left — the sonic equivalent of an exploding can of Red Bull. It doesn't hook you like the album's best tracks, but you can't fault the ambition and attitude. The Killers love a good high-speed, get-the-girl chase. Who wouldn't want to ride shotgun?
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.