So let’s dispatch two facts real quick. First, contrary to earlier reports, there is no seven-and-a-half-minute rock epic titled “The Slot Tech.” Second, yeah, it’s been nearly one full Olympiad since the last Killers full-length. Not that the boys have been dormant: In the interim there was a live album, a Christmas EP, two solo records, and one side project. But it’s business time again — the album cover’s custom-van fresco aside — and there’s nary a smile to be found on Battle Born, which shares a name with the band’s studio and a motto on Nevada’s flag. If such a battle was held, the forces of arena-sized wanderlust won out.
There’s no way getting around it: The Killers are approaching some kind of cliché event horizon. The body they’ve built here is fully stocked: eager eyes, hungry hearts, licked lips, and the belly of the beast. They’re as committed to those wild girls, carefree boys, and the endless restless nights of youth as Steinman/Loaf ever were. Breathing room is at a premium, with track after track dispatched with dutiful efficiency. The occasional addition of strings (as on “Miss Atomic Bomb” and “Here With Me”) is typical rock reflexivity, just another sonic smear. Far from serving as a modernizing gesture, the renewed use of synthesizers actually harks back to transitional U2 or peak-viability Springsteen. (The synths do provide the only real swing on the album, which is riddled with the usual martial rhythms and “Heat Of The Moment”-style breakdowns.)
Still, the widescreen yearning Brandon Flowers and company have made their métier has its place, and if you’ll pardon this cliché, Battle Born has the feel of a splendid road-trip record. It’s an accumulation of grandiosity. After all, with the exception of singles like “All These Things That I’ve Done” and “When You Were Young” (the latter of which is essentially Battle Born’s thematic template), the Killers’ arrangements rarely meet the excitement of Flowers’ self-fulfilling sincerity. Dave Keuning chips in a fantastic solo on “The Rising Tide,” and the sequencing on standout chugger “Deadlines And Commitments” gets the closest to a groove. The uptempo country-rock song “From Here On Out” (which packs quarterback smiles, paradigm shifts, and the Danger Zone within a 15-second span) is the sole cut that doesn’t push or break the four-minute mark, so despite sounding like Tom Petty circa 1990, it probably has no chance at radio.
Like the endless party of Andrew WK or black metal’s unholy woods, there’s something perversely noble about the Killers’ employment of every wild-child trope. Meat Loaf made his bones with priapic landmarks of teenage desire and rock and roll-fueled megalomania; the Killers’ vocab is that of a guidance counselor trying to connect with a stadium-sized school. Flowers is on record saying that recording in their home state invigorated the writing process, but aside from a reference to the Esmeralda County line on “The Way It Was,” very little here is localizing. They’re the pre-eminent Vegas-born act (unless Imagine Dragons gets their act together), but there’s not a neon tube to be seen on Battle Born. One could be generous and call this a Western record, tossing out sanded-down guitar snarl and Ronnie Vannucci, Jr.’s midtempo, road-hypnosis-inducing tom work.
The album closes with the title track, a five-minute anthem of survival containing some of Flowers’ most awkward melodic leaps and delightfully trad harmonized responses. (“Your boys have grown soft / And your girls have gone wild,” he sings, sounding for all the world like an evangelical masculinist.) The last minute is reserved for wordless, devotional sighs and synth arpeggiation. Through this crack in their signifying armor, you can see their pounding ecumenical heart. Smiles are for B-sides. The Killers have a kingdom to build.