Sep 19, 2022
By Austin Saalman
Among its decade’s most underrated releases, The Killers’ fourth studio album Battle Born arrived in the aftermath of the group’s brief hiatus, eschewing the glitz and glamor of 2008’s hit-and-miss Day & Age and picking up where 2006’s heartland rock extravaganza Sam’s Town left off six years prior. During their hiatus, the Las Vegas rockers each went their separate ways, with frontman Brandon Flowers and bassist/rhythm guitarist Mark Stoermer making their respective solo debuts in 2010 and 2011, and drummer Ronnie Vanucci Jr. joining friend Taylor Milne in the formation of electro-pop duo (now group) Big Talk, allowing each musician time away to clear his mind and focus up. In October 2011, The Killers regrouped at their Vegas-based Battle Born Studios, bringing in producers Daniel Lanois, Brendan O’Brien, Steve Lilywhite, and Stuart Price, with the latter of whom the group had collaborated on Day & Age. Also present was mixing and audio engineer Alan Moulder, with whom the group had worked on 2004’s Hot Fuss and Sam’s Town. The grand company, coupled with the recent cultural shift into a fresh decade, surely accounts a great deal for the album’s genre experimentation and diverse soundscapes, with each producer adding his own personal touch to select tracks. The final product sounded more ambitious, more sonically vast than the group’s previous output, The Killers having sought to expand their artistic horizons during its recording.
When the album’s first single “Runaways” emerged as a golden summer anthem the following June, old fans were thrilled to find The Killers back together and in top form, still hanging around those dusty “two-star towns” and projecting the grand heartache of their past output. However, Battle Born itself still managed to surprise many upon its release that September. The album further indulges in the group’s sentimental Springsteen fixation and cinematic sense of escapist nostalgia, while also incorporating the more eclectic styles and influences explored on the members’ solo projects. Like those of Sam’s Town, the album’s soundscapes are broad and arena-ready, while still maintaining the stylish indie appeal of Hot Fuss, a lyrical narrative which Battle Born occasionally continues.
Glitchy opening track “Flesh and Bone” flirts with the syrupy synth rock sound at the heart of The Killers’ style, Flowers reflecting, “I’m not sure how/This natural selection picked me out to be/A dark horse running in a fantasy.” It is a triumphant vision, an impending sense of urgency sweeping the stormy desert landscape conjured within the music and depicted in the album’s cover art, Flowers insisting, “And I’m runnin’ out of time.” A mishmash of influences can be discerned here, the group’s early New Wave and indie inspirations merging with its later theatrical arena rock leanings, complementing Flowers’ newfound confidence as he sings, “They’ll call me the contender/They’ll listen for the bell/With my face flashing crimson from the fires of Hell.”
Battle Born’s furious determination is far more polished than that of Sam’s Town, the group’s Springsteen-esque sketches of down-and-out everymen cut clearer than ever before. This quality is most evident on such cuts as sentimental arena rocker “Runaways”—The Killers’ obvious nod to The Boss’ own “Racing in the Street”—and sugary separation ballad “Here With Me,” which boasts a great Tim Burton-directed music video in which a young boy pines after a ghostly vision of Winona Ryder. Glimmering “The Way It Was” arrives awash in cinematic visions of late night desert drives and Elvis Presley hits on the radio, while the burning “A Matter of Time” sees Flowers paying homage to the likes of Meat Loaf, the operatic quality of the track’s chorus echoing that of 1977’s Bat Out of Hell. This track remains something of the album’s major sleeper cut, in that its grandiose beauty is not immediately recognizable, requiring multiple listens and perhaps even years to reveal itself in its entirety. Subsequently, the mercurial “Deadlines and Commitments,” possibly the least “Killers”-esque track off Battle Born, arrives cloaked in a sleek New Wave groove, recalling to some extent the group’s creative intentions on Hot Fuss, but without reverting to the album’s trendy arrogance.
Battle Born’s central track, the sweeping “Miss Atomic Bomb,” serves as a companion piece to 2004’s popular hit “Mr. Brightside,” albeit trading the latter’s frenzied, hormonal rush for a wide-angled vision of aching desire and regret. Multiple callbacks, both lyrical and melodic, to “Mr. Brightside” equip “Miss Atomic Bomb” with enough sincere charm to endear it to the group’s oldest fans. Its music video, among the greatest of its decade, in which Flowers and the band, alongside actors Izabella Miko and Eric Roberts, reprise their roles from the original, adds abundances of nostalgia to the experience, revealing the titular mister’s romantic devastation as being nothing more than a fateful misunderstanding. Indeed, in his haze of paranoid jealousy, the protagonist single-handedly destroyed the greatest love he’d ever known. With this track, The Killers realized what grand vision they had plotted from the beginning, Flowers declaring: “But I’m standin’ here and you’re too late/Your shockwave whisper has sealed your fate.” “Miss Atomic Bomb” topped Rolling Stone’s Readers’ Poll for Best Song of 2012, quickly cementing itself as a new fan favorite and marking a creative high point for the band, yet to be exceeded.
Noir-ish “The Rising Tide,” while not instantly noticeable among the album’s many gems, serves as something of a spiritual sibling to “A Matter of Time,” and rocks as hard as any of Battle Born’s heavier cuts. Lyrically, the track features plenty of Flowers’ signature biblical allusions, which never seem to scream as loudly as in his declaration: “And the company you keep/Well they plan your crucifixion as we speak/So baby, till life and the dream collide/There’s going to be a mystery underneath those neon lights.” Elsewhere, the charming “Heart of a Girl,” co-written by Daniel Lanois, represents an album high point, its easy-going backroad indie country sway finding Flowers at his widest-eyed, as he declares, “I believe that we never have to be alone/Yes, I believe it’s just around the bend/You can hold it in or you can scream it on a microphone/There is no end, there is no end.”
Brief country rocker “From Here On Out” hauls Eagles to the center of The Killers’ colorful, New Wave-infused stage and abandons them in its neon glow before a roaring audience. The final product is terrific, entirely authentic, and sounds very much like a long lost ’70s Laurel Canyon gem. “Be Still,” one of the group’s most affecting ballads, is wholly gentle in comparison to the rest of Battle Born, driven predominantly by low synth keys and a drum machine. Here, Flowers imparts a bit of mystic wisdom to the listener, as he contemplates the notions of strength, mortality, stoicism, and perseverance, assuring that, “If they drag you through the mud/It doesn’t change what’s in your blood.” The track is almost an older man’s response to the youthful apprehensions of 2006’s “Why Do I Keep Counting?,” as though the 30-year-old Flowers has at last taken the time to address the most pressing questions put forward by his eager-eyed 25-year-old former self. The entirety of Battle Born’s burning energy culminates in its closing title track, on which big, stinging arena rock guitars and a Queen-esque chorus battle it out for the album’s soul, Flowers dropping some of his finest lines up to that point, including, “You lost faith in the human spirit/You walk around like a ghost/Your star-spangled heart/Took a train for the coast.” “Battle Born” is an invigorating track, finding The Killers in good spirits as they stared down a new decade, over the course of which their sound and dynamic would drastically shift.
After the fanfare died down back in 2012, Battle Born quickly slid to the back of The Killers’ discography, seldom mentioned in the great shadows cast by the group’s more prominent releases. Still, it remains a relevant and masterfully-crafted rock album deserving of at least a listen or two. One hears Battle Born in 2022 and the entire experience feels like a lifetime ago—a peculiar sensation to find a decade on. Listen to Battle Born, enjoy its warm underdog recklessness as one imagines small desert highway towns, heartland drive-ins, and heartbreak beneath the glow of blinking motel signs. If the writer may state an unpopular opinion, it may well be among The Killers’ top releases, second only to Sam’s Town.