It’s easy to love a thing that everyone else loves. In the music world, there is something thrilling about the communion that comes with shared adoration: about falling head over heels for something that resonates with a lot of other people at the same time as it resonates with you, or of getting the affirmation that comes from seeing all your friends and family and acquaintances fall in love with an album or artist you already adored. It’s far harder to stand your ground when you love something that everyone else says is dogshit. It’s difficult to keep carrying the torch for an album when even the artist who made it has come to view it as sub-par.
I bring all of this up because this weekend marks 10 years since The Killers released Battle Born, their fourth album and an LP that just about everyone – frontman Brandon Flowers included – is convinced is mediocre or downright bad. They’re all wrong: This album fucking rules. It has always ruled, and it will always rule, and it is the perfect bridge between The Killers that were and The Killers that are today. There have been times, over the years, where I would have called it the band’s best album. (I believe that my review of the album for AbsolutePunk.net, still listed as the most positive write-up the album got on Metacritic, made precisely that claim.) From the vantage point of 2022, following two game-changing, band-redefining albums from The Killers in 2020 and 2021, I’m not even sure what my favorite Killers album is anymore. Best or not, though, Battle Born deserves more credit than it got in 2012, and I’m here to make the case for it – even if no one else will.
I’ll admit up front that I have some sentimental baggage with Battle Born that may make me predisposed to like it more than the average person. This album dropped in the fall of 2012, just weeks after I’d started my senior year of college, and I loved that year of my life. After three years spent stumbling around in search of where I belonged and what I wanted to do when I grew up, senior year brought clarity on both fronts. Battle Born, along with several other fall 2012 releases – particularly Taylor Swift’s Red, which I’ll be talking about in these virtual pages very soon – soundtracked that hard-fought contentment, and it’s an album that means a great deal to me as a result.
The memory that lingers most for me when I think of Battle Born is a late-night drive I found myself making that fall in the wake of a Gaslight Anthem show. With 100 miles or so to burn between the concert venue’s doors and my college town, and with the night already veering dangerously close to morning, I was counting on the right music to keep me awake and get me home. Battle Born, still brand new at the time, served that role admirably. I already liked the songs, but they sounded downright transcendent amidst the darkness of the highway. The creeping dread of “Flesh & Bone”; the full-on bombast of “Runaways”; the way songs like “Miss Atomic Bomb” and “Be Still” flourished and bloomed with the nighttime and the billboard lights. I’d always loved The Killers, but there were knotty little edges to all their records that I struggled with: The side-B quality drop-off on Hot Fuss, or the claustrophobic production of Sam’s Town, or the zany duds like “Joyride” that brought Day & Age down a peg. Listening to Battle Born that night, I adored everything about it, from the songs to the production to the sequencing. By the time I pulled into my parking spot at my apartment complex in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I would have told you it was a masterpiece.
If I’d had to describe how I felt about Battle Born that night in one word, the word I’d choose would have been “comfortable.” There was something deeply welcoming to me about these songs and the way they sounded. For one thing, the album and its classic-rock-indebted songwriting was very much my wheelhouse at the time. But there was also more to it than that. Battle Born, I think, is the sound of one of the biggest bands in the world finally being comfortable in their own skin. For so much of their career, The Killers have either been trying to prove something to someone or trying to prove someone wrong. Time and time again, they’ve showed themselves to be too sensitive to the words of critics, pivoting stylistically on Day & Age after backlash around Sam’s Town, and retreating for years after a similarly cool reception for Battle Born.
But while Battle Born may not be as iconic as Hot Fuss or as much of a cult classic as Sam’s Town, it’s one of the few albums in The Killers’ discography that feels removed from the whims and expectations of critics and detractors. Here, rather than worrying about seeming “cool” or being liked by everyone, The Killers made an unabashedly huge and earnest arena rock record. If any band from the 2000s indie surge was going to be the next U2, it was going to be The Killers, and this album sounded like an application for the job. They threw every legendary rock influence they had at these songs: not just U2, but also Springsteen, Queen, The Velvet Underground, Elton John, Meat Loaf, The Eagles, and Journey. They also brought in five producers and a small army’s worth of additional musicians, mixers, and other personnel.
The result could easily have been a mess, but I actually think that Battle Born is one of the most cohesive Killers albums. Sonically, it sounds so massive and triumphant that it’s almost hard to believe there’s more to the songs than empty bombast. But during that last year of college, I found surprising depths of comfort in these songs. “From here on out, friends are gonna be hard to come by,” Flowers sings at one point – a line that always punched me in the gut at the time. After college wound down, my friend group scattered. I’m lucky to see most people from high school or college once a year. And making new friends is hard, once those shared experiences of school and parties and dorm rooms or apartments is removed. This album, to me, always felt like a look back at those younger and more open days of human connection, blasted through the prism of romantic escapes into the desert and Elvis singing “Don’t Be Cruel” over the radio. Once those good ol’ days are gone, what do you do? Flowers and co. didn’t have the answers in 2012, but they sure made all the doubt and regret sound grandiose.
Battle Born is, in many ways, the last album from this version of The Killers. Following a marathon tour in support of the record, the band splintered and went their separate ways. Their next album wouldn’t come until five years later. When it did arrive, in the form of 2017’s Wonderful Wonderful, something felt amiss. Critics said it sounded like a band on its last legs, but that wasn’t quite right, because Wonderful Wonderful didn’t sound much like a band at all. Guitarist Dave Keuning, long the roaring, squealing heart of the band, was nowhere to be found. And the songs themselves – delicate, personal things filled with fear and uncertainty – sounded more like the components of a Brandon Flowers solo album than most of the material on either actual Brandon Flowers solo album. Flowers wrote most of the record about tumultuous things that were happening within his life and his family, and while the songs were as emotionally raw as any Killers tracks had ever been, most people weren’t ready to hear them. This band had started out as preeminent bards of early-20s hedonism, and here they were, trying to swim the choppy seas of adulthood. If the good ol’ days felt far away on Battle Born, they felt just about forgotten on Wonderful Wonderful.
The Killers’ arc as a band makes infinitely more sense from the vantage point of 2022 than it did from 2012 or 2017. The answers these guys were looking for on Battle Born, they ended up finding on 2020’s Imploding the Mirage — a similarly vast, arena-scraping record that got a much more positive response from fans and critics. Crucially, The Killers of today are less of a fixed four-man band and more of a collective. Keuning cycled back in for last year’s Pressure Machine, but now bassist Mark Stoermer was missing (though all four guys have been on the road for the post-pandemic Killers tour). But the band’s inner circle is also now big enough to encompass legendary guitarists like Lindsey Buckingham and Mark Knopfler, or guest vocalists like Phoebe Bridgers and Weyes Blood, or studio mavens like Shawn Everett and Jonathan Rado, or the entire War on Drugs extended universe. On Battle Born, you could see that direction taking shape, as the band jumped from Steve Lillywhite to Brendan O’Brien to Daniel Lanois to Stuart Price for production help. But Battle Born also feels like the end of an era for the band – an era where each song still cooked on the chemistry of the same four guys who had first locked into an effortlessly catchy groove on Hot Fuss.
I adore the albums that The Killers have made since 2012, and I love the adventurous, collaborative spirit they’ve leaned on to make their last two albums arguably their best. But I do sometimes miss the way they sounded as a four-man unit. Battle Born remains a beautiful display of that full-band grandeur: the way Keuning’s ricochet guitar trades off with Flowers’ equally desperate vocal delivery on “The Rising Tide,” like a baton getting passed in the middle of an electrical storm. Or how Stoermer drapes “Heart of a Girl” in rich, velvety bass tones. And then there’s the title track and epic closer, maybe the best-ever document of the band’s cumulative talents locking into sync. Witness Keuning’s wall of guitars, surging and blaring like a church organ. Feel the thunder of Ronnie Vannucci’s drums. Fear Flowers wail like a madman at the top of a mountain peak, an entire church choir behind him. At their best, The Killers have often sounded like the biggest, grandest, most cathartic band there ever was. They sure as hell sounded big, grand, and cathartic on Battle Born. 10 years later, is it their greatest record? Maybe not, but it might be the one I love most.