Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: The Killers Wonderful Wonderful

There are three distinct moments you can argue the Killers’ cultural relevance dried up.

Musically, the tank hit empty upon the release of the Las Vegas quartet’s fourth studio LP, Battle Born, a tedious slog of overly rehearsed dramatics betrayed by noncommittal songwriting. It was the band’s least essential offering to date (even stacked up against their 2007 B-sides-and-rarities compilation Sawdust), and an admitted failure by the band themselves. In the years following, Brandon Flowers, Mark Stoermer, and Ronnie Vannucci Jr. all released albums outside of the Killers that felt more contemporarily urgent, and from a pragmatic standpoint it seemed like the band’s best days ahead would be those outside of their New Order-inspired moniker.

But even if Battle Born portended the band’s waning significance, commercially their casket didn’t officially close until the following year, when the release of Direct Hits was difficult to interpret as anything other than a “2004-2013″ gravestone. On its face, having a greatest hits album is quite the accomplishment for a band only four studio LPs into its career, but it’s also clearly an early cash-in suggesting a lack of faith that the band has much else left to offer, especially when the tracklist is padded with forgotten — or rather, never-registered — singles like “For Reasons Unknown” and “The Way It Was.”

Yet the final nail in their coffin of contemporary relevance came just last month, via an improbably botched response to a seemingly innocuous interview question from Noisey: “Do you think a band like yours could gain similar traction [via word-of-mouth] in the present day?”

To be fair, there isn’t an easy answer here. The end of a radio monoculture does make it unlikely that any band could achieve as quick and complete a takeover as the Killers did upon the release of their debut album, Hot Fuss. There are now a whole lot more channels to saturate in order to acquire any semblance of ubiquity, and word-of-mouth reaches a whole lot fewer ears today as communities continue to fragment into disparate and insular subcultures. But bands also never stopped gaining momentum in the mainstream between 2004 and now, they’ve just had to share more of that space with burgeoning stars from other genres. That’s a good thing, even if it means the sounds that have become omnipresent today are wildly discrete and distinct from the ones of years past.

In any case, the answer to the question is definitively not the one Brandon Flowers gave the interviewer:

It could happen — but there hasn’t been anybody good enough. If there was a band like the Strokes, or Interpol, people would talk. [Points outside to Brooklyn] If there were some kids out there right now playing “Obstacle 1″ tonight, I would hear about it, you would hear about it. But there isn’t.

I mean, come on. It’s beyond insulting to imply that the music of the generation that comes after your own isn’t up to snuff — it’s unequivocally ignorant. No matter how many thinkpieces argue one way or another, music today is as great as it’s always been — especially rock music. Flowers should know this: He recently complimented an entire crop of newer bands for Vice as part of this very album cycle, before ironically and evidently inaccurately going on record to say, “I’ve been trying as I get older to not trash people.” Never in their career have the Killers felt as distinctly out of touch as they did once that quote went viral, in part because the only people who genuinely complain about there being no good music anymore are the ones presently releasing the worst music of their careers, but also because the bands he cites as the last ones worthy of word-of-mouth recognition only remain institutions today on the strength of remnant nostalgia for their former potential.

The Strokes and Interpol, like the Killers, each broke out in spectacular fashion and subsequently broke off with iterative failed promises. The only difference is that the Strokes and Interpol offered an aesthetic uniquely specific to them at the time, whereby the Killers just happened to strike the best possible version of a sound you could get from a number of bands they could call peers before eclipsing them completely — the Bravery, Finger Eleven, Keane. But despite their sonic anonymity, the Killers were excellent craftsmen, unrivaled in writing songs that mirrored their beloved canon of fervent ’80s synth-rockers in both intrinsic style and external sheen. Their formula was adept at producing a standard consistency of songwriting, but it’s not one suitable for expressing a wider variety, meaning that once they struck “the one,” there was little else that new releases could offer beyond diminishing returns on that same spark.

Battle Born marked the nadir of a gradual decline in the Killers’ capacity, its biggest problem in being all pomp with none of the circumstance — strutting on entirely hollow facsimiles of what the band thinks they sound like without even a hint of consideration for what they could sound like. To say it was formulaic isn’t exactly accurate, though you’d be hard pressed to distinguish in your memory one song from another. Instead it felt like a flat soda — imparting the taste you’re used to without any of the fizz. It’s the kind of album the band should be releasing by the time they’re enjoying their inevitably fruitful future as a legacy outfit on the casino circuit, not less than 10 years after their debut.

Wonderful Wonderful, the band’s fifth studio album and proper follow-up to Battle Born, seems to course correct at first glance. The opening title track is a genuinely curious amalgam of prog-pop, with gnawing, lurching violins against a topsy-turvy drum pattern and clanging guitar strums. It sounds like the Police’s attempt at a James Bond theme. Sonically, it stands in stark opposition to the melodic mush the band’s been pumping out for about a decade now. Yet what hasn’t changed is Brandon Flowers’ overwrought pretension. He’s so uncontrollably over-the-top most of the time that his commendable sentiments often cross over into accidentally cheeky territory, like he’s trying to parody U2 rather than compete with them. But don’t mistake his intentions; Flowers is sincere in his subject matter, and he’s unashamed in his use of “thine” and “thee” to express as much.

Still, in spite of itself, the song is musically a fascinating swirl of influences that expands the Killers’ palette for once not by reaching up for bigger choruses and grander gestures, nor by dressing old Springsteen affectations in a glam moonlight, but rather through pushing outward the range of sounds in their arsenal. Same goes for “The Man,” which thankfully ignores issues of real consequence and instead focuses on Flowers’ strong suit, i.e. playing up his dramatized bravado. “The Man” is sublime — a faux-funk glob of pure cheese and charm that balances perfectly Flowers’ heart-on-sleeve delivery with a self-awareness typically N/A when a rock band succumbs to actually using those Daft Punk vocalizer harmonies on their lead single. It’s pure showmanship; a disco-fueled romp that successfully pulls off a Kool & The Gang sample and will be an extraordinary amount of fun to hear live (regardless of whoever ends up performing it).

But that’s unfortunately about it for Wonderful Wonderful’s virtues. Next up comes “Rut,” the album’s first classic Killers syrup-snorer, sounding vaguely sparkly like much of Battle Born did. It’s sweeping, but sedentary — pretty, yet paltry. “Don’t give up on me/ ‘Cause I’m just in a rut/ I’m climbing but the walls just keep stacking up,” Flowers croons with auto-pilot conviction, giving you only the most perfunctory reasons not to tune out. There’s a vague HAIM-ish quality to the rhythm section’s slippery strut, but it slaps at such a sleepy mid-tempo pace it’s impossible to let it whisk you away, particularly during the stiff outro: “I’ll climb and I’ll climb!” Flowers bellows, mistakenly presuming he’s earned such gravitas by that point.

“Life To Come” continues Flowers’ preoccupation with overcoming the odds, granted it’s a fair theme to be sticking to when the band’s been long running on the last ounces of their initial goodwill. It’s a stronger representation of the sound “Rut” fumbles, with an undercurrent of searing guitar licks working up a more frenetic pulse. The song employs a more dynamic amalgamation of shadowy call-and-response, strafing rhythms, and some of Flowers’ best delivery, particularly cinching the expressive commandment “just dropkick the shame” at the end of each verse. Yet as lively as it gets, the song also can’t seem to build enough velocity to escape the quicksand that is this band’s sappy playing style, getting stuck in aimlessly sustained chords and soupy atmospherics.

That’s true for each of the album’s least essential cuts, all loaded on the back end beginning with the Brian Eno-inspired “Some Kind Of Love,” which just plods along without ever justifying the amount of space it takes up. It’s the most boring song Chris Martin never wrote. “The Calling,” on the other hand, is musical-theater outlaw country, but the least exciting interpretation of that description imaginable. “Out Of My Mind” is self-referential to a fault, though it finds a pleasing groove once Flowers is finished making fun of himself for liking Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney. “Have All The Songs Been Written?” is a provocative title with an obvious answer, but with its colorless platitudes and absence of even the slightest instrumental oscillation, it’s illustrative in answering a different question: Do the Killers have anything interesting left to say?

Wonderful Wonderful suggests no, though “Run For Cover” tries to make due using the most distinct qualities from other bands. Originally written for Day & Age, the single borrows heavily from Interpol’s guitar book, as well as strangely Rivers Cuomo’s strained, syllabic zeal, with Flowers moving quickly through lines that seem lifted straight from the Weezer frontman’s head-scratching lyric sheets. At one point Flowers delivers without a wink the tepid burn “You think by now you’d have an A in toxicology,” and by then you’ll probably be asking yourself what this band even used to sound like.

Flowers has been going around from interview to interview explaining how the Killers, having been around for awhile before blowing up, were fully-formed by the time Hot Fuss marked their official introduction, going on to lament how new bands are no longer afforded the same opportunity to grow in isolation. Yet he’s also admitted that breaking out so early makes the Killers’ less interesting relative to the career arcs he himself gravitates towards: “Going back to bands that I grew up with, I think about a band like Depeche Mode. It wasn’t until five records in, even six, that they really hit their stride…Those are the cooler stories, I think. Bands that grow up together and evolve over time. Then you sort of find what you really are. We just came out so bombastic. We couldn’t help it.”

I can’t fault the Killers for having publicly emerged in peak form, and Flowers knows that things are so different now that whatever formula for success the band might have stumbled upon in 2004 isn’t at all applicable anymore, even if there’s always the temptation to try and revisit what worked the first go-round: “You try to figure out how to get back there. I’m guilty of chasing it a little bit, trying to figure out how to do that every time.” It’s good that the Killers are conscious enough not to endlessly recreate Hot Fuss every few years, but Wonderful Wonderful marks their most emphatic embodiment of purposelessness. While he might not be treading the same ground until he buries himself within it, Flowers has instead regretfully decided to simply keep the band immobile where they are.

Perhaps some of that can’t be helped — it’s difficult to determine a new collective identity when your band members don’t live near you, tour with you, or really seem to enjoy one another. But if the Killers are going to insist on remaining a presence in the contemporary music scene, they’d better figure out what it is they’re here to provide, because otherwise they’re just contributing a hell of a lot of noise drawing attention away from the many bands that are actually good enough for their spotlight. Beyond all the artists rising if you widen your scope, the real reason Flowers should have answered yes to that interview question is because if the Killers had released Hot Fuss today it would still absolutely have been a word-of-mouth smash. But perhaps he was hesitant to make the answer about himself, because he probably knows about as well as we all do that if the band debuted today with Wonderful Wonderful, no one would have anything to say.

Wonderful Wonderful is out 9/22 via Island Records.