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The Killers Are Still Too Much, in a Good Way

Their new album, ‘Wonderful Wonderful,’ does not quite live up to the heights of 2003—but then, what could?

Brandon Flowers Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The last song on the new Killers album, Wonderful Wonderful, is called “Have All the Songs Been Written?” That question, apparently, was the subject line of an email frontman Brandon Flowers, in the midst of a bout of writer’s block, sent to none other than Bono, who suggested it would make an excellent song title. If this exchange strikes you as ridiculous—the further misadventures of pompous stadium-rock stars who treat even their moments of self-doubt as cause for further self-aggrandizement—then Wonderful Wonderful is not for you.

Too bad. The answer to Flowers’s question is no, by the way. Nobody had written a bluesy synth-pop song that starts with Woody Harrelson quoting from the Book of Matthew. Nobody had written a song whose chorus includes the line “Have a little faith in me, girl / Just drop-kick the shame.” Nobody had written a song called “Tyson vs. Douglas,” wherein a veteran rock star worries he’ll suffer the same shock-KO fall from grace that Mike Tyson once suffered at the hands of Buster Douglas. Nobody had written a song that begins thus:

What have you gathered to report to your progenitors?
Are your excuses any better than your senators?
He held a conference and his wife was standin’ by his side
He did her dirty but no one died
I saw Sonny Liston on the street last night
Black-fisted and strong, singin’ “Redemption Song”
He motioned me to the sky
I heard heaven and thunder cry

Sonny Liston would like to be excluded from this narrative, but I wouldn’t. The Killers are fascinating even at their worst, pleasingly flamboyant even at their dullest. Wonderful Wonderful, the Las Vegas band’s bonkers fifth album, is an improvement over their last one, 2012’s relatively muted Battle Born. But don’t expect a mind-blowing and/or head-scratching killer single on the order of “Read My Mind” or “Human” or literally anything on the first half of the band’s bulletproof debut album, 2004’s Hot Fuss. This record is an odd duck even amid a flock of ’em, a whiplash seesaw battle between the deadly serious and the terminally ludicrous. The goofy stuff hits you first, but the grandiosely sincere stuff will hit you hardest.

The first step to appreciating all this is to take these fellas as seriously as they take themselves.

“The band that wanted it, and were fucking ready for it, were the Killers.” That’s critic and author Marc Spitz, quoted in Lizzy Goodman’s oral history Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011. That book’s overwhelming focus is the Strokes, held up by seemingly hundreds of musicians, critics, publicists, scenesters, and the like as the biggest and best rock band of the 21st century, though their reign was brief and their sharp decline inevitable. From the onset, the Strokes were self-destructive and imperious, with an aversion to the dramatic gestures and corporate-friendly cuddliness and unapologetically massive-sounding pop singles that true greatness (or at least true Hugeness) requires. They weren’t sure they wanted it and definitely weren’t ready for it.

That’s the theory, anyway. And per most of the people quoted in Bathroom, the Killers absorbed the swagger and indie-rock-as-arena-rock ingenuity of the Strokes, Interpol, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and other NYC-born or NYC-beloved bands, but added a dogged professionalism, a shrewd careerism, a maddening refusal to crash and burn. They felt no shame about how huge they sounded or how huge they wanted to get. There is a grudging respect in Goodman’s book for the band’s chart-topping and arena-stuffing accomplishments, but most people quoted radiated a palpable snootiness, also. “He would amusedly observe, have a beer or whatever,” the hedonism-minded rocker Har Mar Superstar recalled of Flowers. “That’s why they’re bigger than all of us who enthusiastically enjoyed the spoils of war.”

The cattiest way to summarize this attitude is that the Killers are to the Strokes as Vegas’s New York–New York casino is to the actual city of New York. As for the nicest way to put it, well, the Strokes never wrote a song this good.

It sure felt like they’d all been written when “Mr. Brightside” rocketed these fellas to superstardom in late 2003 and 2004, a bombastic cheeseball whoosh, inscrutable and undeniable. This song rules. Let’s not argue about this. What the Killers contributed to the Rock Is Back! explosion of the early 2000s—further typified by the White Stripes, the Hives, and the Vines—was an abiding love for shiny, flamboyant synth pop. (“They had keyboards, and nobody was allowed to have keyboards,” is how the critic Conor McNicholas put it in Meet Me in the Bathroom.) They were cocky, too: In the run-up to their next record, 2006’s dusty Springsteen-U2 homage Sam’s Town, Flowers told the NME that it would be “one of the best albums in the past 20 years.” I don’t believe that, but when I listen to “When You Were Young” now, I believe that they believed that. In America, that’s usually enough.

The Killers have never quite fallen off: Their third album, 2008’s humid and sax-heavy Day & Age, at least gave the world the immortal chorus “Are we human / Or are we dancer?” And Battle Born was hardly a disaster, though you’re better off with 2015’s The Desired Effect—the second of Flowers’s two solo albums—and the New Wave maximalism of “Can’t Deny My Love” especially.

Nothing on Wonderful Wonderful will grab you by the hot-pink lapels with that ferocity; indeed, first single “The Man” is goofy as hell, a strutting, white-funk send-up of machismo that triangulates Daft Punk and Flight of the Conchords: “’Cause baby I’m gifted / You know what I mean / USDA-certified lean!” Flowers is spoofing his younger, cockier Hot Fuss–era self here, though he hasn’t lost that outspokenness entirely: Last month he told Noisey that the reason no newer rock band has broken through with Killers-esque force is because “there hasn’t been anybody good enough.”

There’s plenty of that goofy, megabudget brashness on Wonderful Wonderful: “Run for Cover,” the one that rhymes senators with progenitors and drags Sonny Liston into it, sounds like A Much Larger and Faster Flock of Seagulls. But the pomposity quickly takes on odder, and far more personal, dimensions. The creeping and grandiose title track kicks things off with a chorus that steers directly for Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” and goes as follows:

Motherless child, dost thou believe
That thine afflictions have caused us to grieve?
Motherless child, angels have closed
Their eyes, thou wast thrown away and exposed

Flowers throws in the line clothesline the shame, too, just to get a little self-help/pro-wrestling theme going. But what makes this sort of pretentiousness bearable—and endearing, and possibly even compelling—is that the “motherless child” is apparently Flowers’s wife, Tana. Here’s the sort of quote Flowers is giving the NME in 2017:

My wife has PTSD. She has a version called Complex PTSD. It’s when a person has had multiple traumatic experiences. Her whole life, she’s been covering it, pretending it isn’t there. For whatever reason, in her 30s, it’s decided to really manifest itself and that’s what I’m going through with my family. Usually I feel protective of her but I decided to take it head on.

Huge swaths of this record are almost painfully intimate, bringing the usual Killers-brand glamour and flash to bracing tales of a relationship with a bit more depth to it than those Flowers described on “Somebody Told Me.” The soaring-vista soft rock anthem “Rut”—used as a noun, not a verb—sounds like a particularly intense Phil Collins therapy session. And even a lighter moment like the woozy and syrupy “Out of My Mind” has a discomfiting specificity, as Flowers manages to both serenade his wife and brag about the rock stars he’s shared stages with: “So I told you ’bout McCartney / That’s a heavy name to drop.”

The heaviest, and prettiest, and best moment here is the ballad “Some Kind of Love,” which aims for a Brian Eno elegant delicacy and ends with Flowers and his sons singing, “Can't do this alone / We need you at home / There's so much to see / We know that you're strong.” It teeters right on the cliff’s edge of Way Too Much, which is where the Killers have spent most of their careers, but now there’s a much sharper sense of consequence.

But we rely on the Killers to deliver Too Much, and if nothing else, it’s impressive that they keep finding new ways to deliver it. The vulnerability here is unexpected and extends past Flowers’s family life: The Killers’ lineup is fracturing somewhat, with both longtime guitarist Dave Keuning and bassist Mark Stoermer now relegated, by choice, to studio-only members who won’t join the band on tour. They’re still susceptible to the long-term attrition that plagues even the shrewdest and cleanest-cut of stadium-rock bands.

It’s a bracing reminder that they might still be dancer, but they’re definitely human. Wonderful Wonderful is a little too goopy and overshare-y to ever make you totally comfortable, and the band’s search for another song with half the impact of “Mr. Brightside” continues. But even if they can’t quite fill that void anymore, they still fill it better than most of their younger competition, and these days they’re trying to fill it with weirder, nervier stuff. There’s still plenty of cockiness and very little shame on display here, and what shame does creep through gets drop-kicked soon enough.