Artist: The Killers
Album: Wonderful Wonderful
In Brief: The Killers are probably always going to strike me as a highly inconsistent band. I can’t decide whether I want them to be more serious or more silly, and they often swerve in one direction when I’d expect them to go in the other. But they make a good case for both sides of their personality on their fifth album, which shows some genuine maturity in places without casting off their fun, glammy side. I’d say it’s their best work since Hot Fuss, actually.
We’re five albums into The Killers‘ career now, and I’m trying to think back on how much time I’ve spent making fun of the band versus the time I’ve spent defending them. My written output only tells half of the story here, because while I found a lot to love about their hit debut Hot Fuss and slowly warmed up to a number of tracks on their third album, Day & Age, I didn’t find much at all that I connected with (or for that matter, could even think of amusing ways to make fun of) on the albums in between, Sam’s Town and Battle Born. You can easily find Killers fans who will swear up and down that Sam’s Town is a stone cold classic, and I’m not here to argue with them by any means. It just didn’t sound as captivating to my ears as the incredibly tight and addictive performances they delivered on their first album. Battle Born was less well received by comparison, and I honestly remember very little about it – it wasn’t horrible, but nothing on it struck me as worthy of holding a candle to their classic material. That one was even acknowledged by the band as a bit of a misstep, for which their new album, Wonderful Wonderful, appears to be a course correction. I truly wasn’t looking forward to this one – I had it on my “Morbidly Anticipating” list, on which I track albums I dread actually listening to from artists I figure I should still give a chance even though a part of me really doesn’t want to. And you know what? I was actually pleasantly surprised.
What The Killers seem to have figured out in the intervening years is to make it a little more clear when they intend to be silly and glammy, and when they intend to be serious and dramatic. There’s still some bleed-over between these two moods on Wonderful Wonderful, mostly due to the band’s continued love for synthetic, nostalgic sounds that don’t always work in a setting where they’re trying to play it more straight. But I’m actually hearing some self-aware criticism here, some genuinely thoughtful reflections on who Brandon Flowers was as a younger man and who he turned out to be, and even some bits of his religious faith sneaking into the lyrics (he’s a Mormon, but it’s all stuff that pretty much anyone who has read the Bible ought to pick up on) in surprisingly effective ways. Despite how Flowers has been the focal point for pretty much every joke I’ve made at this band’s expense (largely due to his caterwauling vocal style that can sometimes be painfully off-key when he’s going for more of an epic or emotional delivery), I genuinely believe as I listen to some of these songs that he has a fierce love for his family, for the craft of making genuinely good rock music in an era where the genre seems to be underappreciated, and heck, maybe even for the listener. I couldn’t tell on a lot of their past work whether some of it was overblown for irony’s sake, or whether the glitz and glamour and the seedy, trashy details underneath all the bright lights were genuine turn-ons for his as a songwriter, or whether he was just doing it on a lark to get a rise out of the audience. He’s matured, and I’m sure to some, that will make 2017’s Killers a very different band from 2004’s Killers. I like them now for very different reasons than I liked them then, is what I’ve realized.
Now despite some members taking a break from touring, this is still very much the same band, as far as I understand it. While there are a few songs on Wonderful Wonderful that sound like nothing The Killers have attempted before, sometimes all I need to hear is a strong bass line or a riveting guitar solo, or maybe even a cheesy keyboard hook, to remind me even in this new context that the same four personalities put this together as the ones we heard on Hot Fuss. What that also means, unfortunately, is that even at the top of their game, The Killers still struggle with inconsistency. There were a few tracks even on their venerated debut that got on my last nerve, and there are a few here that threaten to do that as well, which can really drag down an album when it only has 10 tracks to begin with. Somewhere around 2/3 of the way through, despite the fun I’ve been having up to that point, I start to realize that these guys are pushing their luck a bit with the self-serious balladry, and the up-tempo material is where the actually shine the most on this album, even when it’s a bit silly. But the most surprising tracks could well be the ones that I’m not sure I can put in either the “rocker” or “ballad” category. Perhaps those just draw from different sources than the expected Bruce Springsteen, U2, and 80s new wave influences I’ve noted on past albums. All I can say for sure is that when they manage both a musical surprise and a meaningful lyric that resonates with me all within the same song, they really hit paydirt. Ask me for my Top 10 Killers songs, and I’m already pretty sure that three of these would make the cut. (Admittedly that’s a bit easier when I can barely even remember what the highlights were on two out of their five albums, but still, there were at least three from Day & Age that I loved, and Hot Fuss is at least half filled with solid contenders, so that’s still no small feat.)
All in all, Wonderful Wonderful is a far better album than it deserves to be, this late in the discography of a band I hadn’t felt genuinely excited to hear new music from in over a decade. I’d say it’s worth checking out if you’re a lapsed fan who jumped ship during any of those iffy mid-career albums of theirs, or even if you’ve never quite gotten into the band and were borderline, when you heard singles from past albums, on whether they’d be your style. I can’t quite say this album’s a total career renaissance, due to it being such a mixed bag, but it restores my confidence that they’ve got plenty of creative energy left in them to sustain a much longer career than I had once anticipated.
1. Wonderful Wonderful
The opening track is just… wow. I really didn’t see this one coming. I didn’t quite know what to do with it on first listen, actually, since the opening feels a bit cluttered and murky, with the sound of a conch shell (or whatever kind of shell that is on the album cover, I’m guessing) kicking it off, and the rest of the band sounding a bit watery and distorted, beneath a dark bass line that looms large over the song. This one was Mark Stoermer‘s baby, apparently – Brandon describes him as more of a “minor key” person, and his guiding hand on the track is a big part of the reason I ended up loving it so much. Despite the weird way it starts off, when everyone comes together on the chorus, it feels downright prophetic, with Brandon crying out, “Motherless child, does thou believe/That thine afflictions have caused us to grieve?” The image of a young girl abandoned in the desert, praying for rain to quench her thirst, is a powerful one, and Brandon’s promise to rescue her sounds like it was inspired by passages from the Bible where God speaks to Israel like a father to lost children, promising deliverance. Just to make sure the audience doesn’t think he’s got too much of a God complex going on, he admits later in the song “Maybe I’m dirty/Maybe I’m unworthy/Motherless child, can you hear me?/I will give you a home”. He’s not going to be a perfect savior, but he’s going to do his darndest to correct an injustice where he sees it. This was written as a message to his wife, who if I understand the situation correctly, was abandoned by a child, and he wants to assure her he will never do the same. Since I’m a Foster parent, this one hits me like a ton of bricks. I know I’m no expert at the whole parenting thing, but it means a lot to me and my wife to do whatever we can to be there for a little girl whose birth parents either can’t or won’t take care of her. Of course I was going to connect with this one. But even apart from any personal connection I might feel to the song, I love how well-crafted it is, building from the bizarre uncertainty of the way it opens up into a powerful anthem that doesn’t feel like a repetition of something The Killers have tried before. It’s not an obvious future single by any means, but it would sure make a striking live show opener, and I believe it deserves to be remembered as one of their all-time best songs.
2. The Man
Y’all want a single? Well, here you go! I find it fascinating that The Killers put one of their most unconventional, least radio-friendly tracks right upfront, and then followed it up with a blatantly catchy dance-rock tune pretty much designed for radio, and both of them turned out to be brilliant. We’ve heard 80s-style glam from The Killers on many occasions, but this one finds them throwing their hat into the disco revival ring, with a big, buzzing synth hook and the kind of guitar licks that would easily fit into the era when “Stayin’ Alive” was tearing up the charts. They don’t attempt Bee Gees-style falsettoes or anything, but I definitely get the vibe that they’re sending up the intended macho-ness of such a song (you may laugh, but go back and listen to the tough-guy lyrics of that song sometime), all while Brandon pokes fun at the sheer hubris of his early days in the spotlight, when he apparently thought he was invincible. There’s just enough silliness to his bravado here to give you the necessary wink and nudge to let you in on the joke. If his bragging that “I got skin in the game/I’m a household name/I got news for you baby, you’re looking at the man!” doesn’t elicit chuckles, then the second verse’s declaration that he’s “USDA certified lean” ought to clue you in that you’re not meant to take this seriously. I’m always game for a good deconstruction of masculine stereotypes, and I’m a child of the late 70s, so there’s something about the whole disco throwback thing that never ceases to amuse me, especially when it involves a guy’s mouth writing a macho-man check that his ass can’t cash. (I had actually tried to write a song on this very same topic once, but I couldn’t quite pull off the balance between self-parody and making a clear point to see it through, and besides, I can’t play funky guitar and bass licks to sell it like these guys can.) I’ve made fun of The Killers for a variety of cheesy lyrical turns in the past, but this one is supposed to be cheesy without a doubt, so the more I think to myself, “Who even talks like this?”, and the more I giggle at the female backing vocals reassuring us “I’m the man!”, the more I’m certain that I’m taking this song in the self-deprecating spirit it was intended.
Well, I’ve been having a total blast for the first two tracks, but this is a Killers album, so I knew that feeling couldn’t continue unabated forever. I’m not going to say that this third track is a total downer. It’s actually pretty well-written, probably one of the most personal songs Brandon Flowers has ever put together, coming from a place of compassion as he tries to relate to his wife’s battles with depression and PTSD. That feeling of being walled off from the world, with the odds becoming more and more insurmountable with each passing day, is a tough thing to describe to someone who hasn’t been through it, and it’s to Brandon’s credit that this song comes across as relateable to a lot of people’s situations without being overly generic. He sings it like it’s the real deal and not just a vaguely affirming cash grab. The problem I have with this one is that it brings everything to such a screeching halt, and doesn’t even really emphasize the band that much. Sure, there are live guitars and drums in the mix here, but the robotic vocals in the intro pretty much bring everything to a screeching halt, and most of the rest of the performance is a little too candy-coated. These guys have had synth-heavy material that worked for me in the past, but the keyboards and programming here make it feel a bit too much like a cutesy Owl City track. It really doesn’t fit the mood. And as much as I like the lyrics, I can’t help but feel like the band piles on one too many rousing refrains as the song comes into the home stretch. It’s like they knew the song was a bit of a momentum-killer, and they tried to throw in one too many lighter-waving choruses to compensate.
4. Life to Come
Putting two songs back to back that have a similar mood and tempo to them, especially when they’re slower songs, tends to do neither song any favors. My complaints about this song, in a vacuum, would actually be the opposite of my complaints about “Rut”. Musically, it’s fine. Maybe a bit too much like a more recent U2 ballad, but The Killers have worn that influence quite obviously on their sleeve before and it hasn’t been all that problematic for me. The lyrics and the vocals are what kill this one for me, because this is one of those moments where Flowers is coming across as way more cornball than he probably realizes. I can see that this is meant as an encouraging response to “Rut”. He’s recognized his wife’s pain and he’s doing his part to lift her out of it. But how many pop songs can you think of that give you uselessly generic advice with no practical way to implement it? It’s way too common of a cheap way to tie a bow on a situation that can’t be wrapped up that neatly. When he sings “This is not a shakedown/Let go of the blame/Have a little faith in me now/Just drop-kick the shame” in this song’s chorus, all I can think is, HOW THE HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO DROP-KICK SHAME? That makes zero sense to me. I guess he gets some points for original phrasing, but it really takes me out of the emotional bond I was just barely starting to form with this song. And once he gets to the bridge, his apparent desire to make this a passionate power ballad brings back that same old problem where he starts loudly bellowing a note before he’s entirely sure which note it should be. His voice just wavers all over the place and it’s mildly painful. The band behind him is doing a pretty good job, at least by conventional power ballad standards, so I don’t want to say that this is a terrible song. Still, I can only give it meager points for what it ultimately accomplishes. Few things annoy me more than a song that’s intended to be epic, but that fumbles the most basic ingredients of a powerful recipe in the process.
5. Run For Cover
This song actually began its life in the day and age of… well, Day & Age. Brandon intended to put it on that album, but he just couldn’t finish the lyrics, so it got shelved until singer/songwriter Alex Cameron helped him spruce it up. It’s got a driving beat and more of a straight-ahead rock & roll feel than anything else on the album so far, and I’m imagining this would have been a good shot in the arm if it had appeared on Day & Age, though it might have sounded a bit too similar to that album’s “Spaceman”, both in terms of its instrumentation and it’s conspiracy theorist tune. There are no alien abductions this time around, just the story of a senator caught in a dirty lie, and someone close to him (possibly his wife) is being urged to get the hell away from him before they get swallowed up in the scandal, too. The second verse, with a character trying to console his crying mother, doesn’t seem to fit directly into this, and the bridge’s use of the term “fake news” really sticks out like a sore thumb, making it blatantly obvious that Brandon had different things on his mind between when he started the song and when he finished it. Still, it’s a stellar performance, most definitely a crowd-pleaser. It has that air of Killers campiness to it without feeling overly goofy, and just enough twists and turns to keep it from being 100% predictable despite it being an obvious throwback to their early days.
6. Tyson vs Douglas
A recurring theme throughout this album seems to be the question of what it means to be a man. They’ve mocked superficial “manly” stereotypes in “The Man”, and they’ve put forth more serious images of protectors and advocates for the forgotten and the defenseless in a few other songs. Another important piece of the puzzle is a young boy’s worship of his heroes, which comes up in this song. Those who (unlike me) actually know anything about boxing history will immediately recognize the title as a reference to a landmark match in which Buster Douglas beat Mike Tyson, apparently a huge upset given Tyson’s invincible image in the eyes of his fans up to that point. (A snippet of the match is played at the beginning of the song just to give those of us who don’t know the history a little context – which, as a person with zero interest in sports, I’m actually quite thankful for.) As a young boy, watching this match, it was apparently quite devastating for Brandon to watch one of his heroes get knocked down and not get back up. He describes trying to fight the tears and pretend it didn’t happen – basically going through the stages of grief and eventually coming to accept that his idols are fallible. You’d think this would be a huge downer of a song, but it’s actually more of a rocker just as “Run For Cover” was, making these two songs a solid gut-punch right in the middle of the record. Normally I find the more passionate end of Brandon’s vocal range to be a bit patience-testing, but when he just wails it out on the chorus, it makes perfect sense, because I can imagine he still is that young boy reeling from a sucker punch, begging anyone around him to tell him it was all make believe and his whole mental image of the world wasn’t a massive lie told to him by cruel grown-ups. In the bridge, he alludes to not wanting to show that same weakness to his own children, and yet knowing he can’t portray himself as invincible forever. There’s a real vulnerability to this song despite its tough exterior. I think if one were to make a list of traits that made a “real man”, vulnerability and honesty about one’s imperfection should definitely be on that list.
7. Some Kind of Love
Just as I do with “Rut”, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with this track. It’s another ballad that echoes similar sentiments to that song and “Life to Come”, in that it wants to be a source of light and hope to Brandon’s wife at the lowest point of her despair. There’s no way I would not want to root for that, of course. I just can’t seem to make up my mind on whether this song’s delicate touch is an interesting or dreadfully boring musical turn for the band. I tend to love songs that emphasize the bass. Since the slow rhythm, gentle piano, and simple melody of this song make it float along like a lazy cloud in a summer sky, I can’t help but focus on how the bass softly bumps along – it gives the song a lot more character than it probably deserves. The thoughtful pauses are probably needed to give the song an overall mood of sensitivity – when a person’s that far gone, you know you need to choose your words very carefully. And the compliments he gives her in the verses are certainly well-phrased: “You got the will of a wild/A wild bird/You got the faith of a child/Before the world gets in.” That’s a big awww moment if I ever heard one. But then the chorus has nothing to follow it up with other than its title, “You got some kind of love”, sung slowly and purposefully, which honestly doesn’t lend itself that well to repetition. What does it even mean to have “some kind of love”. I mean, can’t he be a little more specific about what kind it is? I know he’s trying to do one of those folksy hyperbole things here – you know, like when you say “Isn’t that something” or “Some kind of wonderful”, etc. – with the “some” as an understated stand-in for “unique and extraordinary”. I get that, but the delivery is too subtle to make it work. Just when I think this song is drifting off into a dry desert of nothingness, the Flowers kids come to the rescue, joining in on the final refrain: “Can’t do this alone/We need you at home/There’s so much to see/We know that you’re strong.” Including the voices of children in an already melodramatic pop song is a sure-fire recipe for cornball disaster in most cases, but to their credit, they come across as genuinely concerned for their mother, rather than cutesy. The setup almost demands it – if the voices of a woman’s husband and children who both need her and need to show her the love she’s having a hard time mustering for herself can’t pull her back from the brink, then I don’t know what can. It’s the little touches like this one that make this song more than the slow dud it initially appears to be. Still, I think it could have been a bit stronger in the parts of it that get repeated most often.
8. Out of My Mind
What is it with these guys and songs about people’s minds? First there was “Change Your Mind”, then “Read My Mind”, and now this. Not that I think this one’s nearly as memorable as either of the other two. (Yes, I backhandedly said something positive about a Sam’s Town song. Happy now?) It’s got sort of a mid-tempo, synth-heavy, 80s love story sort of feel to it, like the kind of thing you’d be just as likely to hear at a high school prom back then or in a supermarket now. It’s a little too middle of the road despite the glammy touches they’ve tried to put on it, is what I guess I’m saying. Instrumentally, it’s not bad – Dave Keuning even gets to throw in a pretty solid guitar solo. But the lyrics veer back and forth between played-out puppy love and out-of-place name-dropping. The entire premise of the second verse is that he’s played with all of these big names like Springsteen and Paul McCartney and still, the girl of his dreams is standing their unimpressed with his achievements. This may also be a nod to The Killers’ early days, perhaps when Brandon was first trying to romance his wife, for all I know. But the chorus, in addition to being dull and repetitive, doesn’t even really make his intentions clear: “Cause I can’t get you out of my mind/To get you out of my bed/To get you out of my heart/And my head.” I have so many questions here. If you’re so obsessed with this person, why would you want to get them out of your bed? Is this a good relationship where you’re hopelessly in love, or a bad one you’re actively trying to move on from? And isn’t getting someone out of your mind the same thing as getting them out of your head, therefore rendering that last line reundant? I mean, where else in your head are they gonna be – in your nostrils or your eye sockets or something? Total songwriting fail.
9. The Calling
I’m not sure what the weirdest thing about this song is. Is it the syncopated synth beat that sounds almost dark enough to be the lovechild of Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails? Is it the way that beat isn’t quite fast enough or strong enough to make this a total banger, putting it somewhere in an uncanny valley of creepiness that is hard to explain? Or is it the fact that it opens with Woody Harrelson reading a passage from the book of Matthew? Incredulous as you might be at that description, this song actually kinda works for me, maybe because the guitars put just enough grime on it to keep it from sounding like an overzealous robotic dud of an experiment. The Bible reading – which is surprisingly straightforward given the context and the actor delivering it – is a rebuke from Jesus to the Pharisees after they ask him why he eats with “publicans and sinners” – you know, basically the tax collectors and prostitutes who were the lowest rung of society in those days. It relates to the song in the sense that Brandon confronts his father with “the last two chapters of Matthew in my hand”, apparently calling the old man out for talking a good game about religious piety while not living a life exemplary of it at all. The story’s a bit tough to follow, thanks to the details about other members of his family who seems to have gone astray in their own way. But there’s an eeriness to it that seems to promise whether his father is truly a good man obeying his calling from God or he’s a charlatan, either way that’ll all become clear after death. It’s a bit surprising to hear such a confrontational religious song on a Killers album – in a way I kind of like the sinister surprise of it, and in a way I get that same “where are you going with this?” sort of feeling that I did when listening to MuteMath‘s song “Achilles Heel”. But I wish The Killers had put more of a punctuation mark on it. It feels like it’s slowly sneaking up on a climax that it never reaches, which makes it a bit of a weird lead-in to the album’s closing track.
10. Have All the Songs Been Written?
So, what’s a musician who sees U2 as a huge source of inspiration to do when he starts running out of song ideas? Email Bono about it, apparently. As the story goes, Brandon sent Bono an Email with this song’s title as a subject line, and Bono wrote back that it sounded like a great idea for a song, which I know makes Bono sound all sage-like in this exchange, but there’s a part of me that can also imagine Bono thinking, “Why is this hack bothering me about this? God, we meet one time and I make the mistake of giving him my Email address, and now he thinks I’m going to write songs for him. Ah well, I’ll just respond with something inscrutably zen-like that’ll get him contemplating his navel for a while so he’ll leave me alone.” Bono may have been right about it being a good idea for a song… but this is not a good song. The band is reduced to vague ambiance and some hints of wispy guitar, while Brandon sounds all mournful about how maybe all the good ideas have been used up and there’s nothing new under the sun, basically leading him to write a list of metaphors for empty things – “Has all the gas been siphoned/Do the banks still carry gold”, that sort of thing. His conclusion, which he delivers with an entirely somber, straight face, is that he’s gonna keep on writing songs anyway, dammit, because “I just need one more to get through to you.” Now see, I’m usually a sucker for a good exercise in meta-songwriting – that is, writing songs about the process of writing songs. But usually those things have a bit of self-aware humor to them. When you go all serious with it, it makes you sound all self-important, like this has to be the one song that inspires profound thought in the listener when all of your other ideas leading up to it have missed the mark. And The Killers have inspired a lot of fascinating thoughts with various songs from this album, but this one doesn’t deliver the very thing it acts like it was pre-ordained by God to deliver. It’s a dull, maudlin performance that tries to be one of those relateable “down to earth” moments where a big rock star strips away the glitz and glamour and sits in the spotlight with just a piano or something to bare his soul, and it completely fails. Out of all the duds on any Killers album thus far, I can’t say definitively that this is the worst (again, because there are large swaths of two of their albums that I can barely even remember at this point), but it’s gotta be bottom 5, easily.
There’s a deluxe edition of this album that has three extra tracks, none of which are honestly all that exciting. “Money on Straight” is the only actual B-side featured on this version, which is a not-terribly-interesting mid-tempo song with lyrics that make little sense to me and more candied sound effects to distract from a dull melody. Then there are back-to-back remixes of “The Man” that pretty much strip away all the humor by placing it in a modern dance music context. That song needs some kitch to work, and as much as I loved the original, hearing lesser versions of it back-to-back gets really tiring. So even when I do stick around for the bonus material, I tend to mentally check out after “The Calling”.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Wonderful Wonderful $2
The Man $2
Life to Come $.50
Run For Cover $1.25
Tyson vs Douglas $1.75
Some Kind of Love $.75
Out of My Mind $.25
The Calling $1
Have All the Songs Been Written? –$.50
Brandon Flowers: Lead vocals, keyboards, bass
Dave Keuning: Guitar, backing vocals
Mark Stoermer: Bass, guitar, backing vocals
Ronnie Vannucci Jr.: Drums, percussion
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: