Did The Killers just make their best record?
Conventional wisdom about The Killers—at least in the critical community—is that they peaked on their first record, delivered a few iconic hits and a bunch of filler, and then went off on an ill-advised journey to become this generation’s U2 (if this generation’s U2 were fronted by Bruce Springsteen, that is). People adored the glitzy, hedonistic pop tunes on 2004’s Hot Fuss because they were undeniable. They still are: there’s a reason “Mr. Brightside” kills at every wedding you’ve ever been to. But go forward in this band’s catalog and you’ll find fewer and fewer champions for each of their ensuing albums. 2006’s Sam’s Town, at least, is regarded as something of a lost classic. 2008’s Day & Age also has a generally positive reputation for its playful, all-over-the-place vibe—though its ardent fans are fewer and farther between than Sam’s Town’s. 2012’s ultra-bombastic Battle Born has its defenders (including yours truly), but also tends to get written off by music critics, casual fans, and Brandon Flowers himself. And Wonderful Wonderful is regarded by most as something of a dud (also not by me).
And yet, more than 16 years removed from Hot Fuss, The Killers sound as energized, as hungry, and as willing to go for it as they ever have. Somehow, Imploding the Mirage is as close as they’ve ever come to combining all of their skills into one album. What do you get when you take a string of singles nearly as strong as the legendary Hot Fuss crop, pair it with the Springsteenian scope and bombast of Sam’s Town and Battle Born, add a little bit of the bizarre inventiveness of Day & Age and the pop-polyglot magic of frontman Brandon Flowers’ 2015 solo album The Desired Effect, and then dial it all the way up to 11? This record is the answer: an unapologetically gargantuan suite of stadium rock anthems that somehow makes some of The Killers’ past arena-fillers sound like the warm-up act. It reminds me of what Prince said when he found out it was raining on his Superbowl Halftime show: “Can you make it rain harder?” Only here, it’s “Can we go bigger?” Turns out the answer was “Yes.”
The first bit of Imploding the Mirage that anyone heard was “Caution,” which dropped on March 12, 2020 (aka, the day America started to shut down). It’s a bizarre time to have gotten this particular song: a big, widescreen, road-trip ready anthem about throwing caution to the wind and living life unencumbered. That message proved to be somewhat…poorly timed, coming as it did right when pandemic concerns were at their peak, right when bands were canceling all their tours, and right when the simple idea of throwing caution to the wind was morphing from a romantic idea to an irresponsible one. But “Caution” is as undeniable as any song in the Killers arsenal—an atomic, kinetic burst of energy so potent that it somehow makes good on both a ricocheting guitar solo from Fleetwood Mac legend Lindsey Buckingham and a lyric that evokes Springsteen right down to the bone. On “Thunder Road,” the Boss sang “It’s a town full of losers/And I’m pulling out of here to win.” On “Caution,” Flowers sings “If I don’t get out of this town/I might just be the one who finally burns it down.” In both songs, there’s an urgency and optimism that is infectious. It makes you want to get in the car and drive as fast as you possibly can.
I once read that Born to Run is so heavily orchestrated, so theatrical, and so committed to its central idealism that any attempt to replicate it would come across as cartoonish and comical. But on Imploding the Mirage, The Killers just decide that sounding a little bit ludicrous is a reasonable price to pay if you can capture even an iota of the reckless hope that defines Springsteen’s calling-card masterpiece. Towering guitars; sweeping synths; twinkling glockenspiel: these are the ingredients of songs like “My Own Soul’s Warning” and “Dying Breed,” both of which seem like the work of a band pretending like it’s still 1975. When Flowers bellows “But then I thought I could fly” on the former, you goddamn better believe him; hell, you’ll think you can fly too—especially if you happen to be burning down a highway skyline on the back of a hurricane while the song is playing.
That’s the thing about Brandon Flowers: he’s maybe the last rockstar of his generation with the courage and the ego to act like he’s making the most important music in the world. He’s confident enough to put his voice up against Buckingham’s guitar and not lose, or to ape Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac as hard as he does on “Blowback” and “Running Towards a Place,” respectively, and think he’ll get away with it. He’s bold enough to shout “My Own Soul’s Warning” like it’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” or to call the last two tracks on his record “When the Dreams Run Dry” and “Imploding the Mirage” without acquiescing to the fact that this kind of epic rock ‘n’ roll grandeur scans more as preposterous than profound in the year 2020. At least, it would sound preposterous if it weren’t backed by so much utter faith and earnestness. But Flowers doesn’t even care if you think he’s talking nonsense when he’s singing about “cutting through the clutter of the whirlwind of these days,” or “shaking the lightning from the locks of your unbound hair.” It might sound like Bono refrigerator poetry to you, but to this Vegas believer, Imploding the Mirage is a deeply-felt story “about two people persevering trying to become eternal.” It certainly sounds like a band reaching for immortality.
Naysayers have always criticized The Killers for trying too hard. They got dinged early in their career for aiming squarely at populist success, at a time when it was way cooler for a rock band to adopt a devil-may-care attitude like that of The Strokes. When Sam’s Town came out, they got dinged again for daring to grow beyond the raucous party of Hot Fuss and to move in a more earnest, serious direction. Even with Imploding the Mirage, the praise The Killers have earned from critics has largely been backhanded, as in “I can’t believe this band I wrote off in the mid-2000s managed to claw their way back to relevance.” But you don’t get music like this from a band that doesn’t care, or from a band not willing to go all-in, or from a band too embarrassed to gesture toward an outdated stadium rock ideal and say “That’s what we’re going to do now.” The Killers these days may be half a band, limping forward with a singer and a drummer and a bunch of broken parts. They may be releasing their big stadium play out into the world at a time when the idea of a stadium concert tour seems almost alien in how unlikely it is to come to fruition in the next 18 months. They may even be making music in a genre that a whole lot of people don’t care about anymore. But they’re doing it with everything they have, because that’s the only way they’ve ever known how to make music. Watching them create these songs is like watching men try to be gods. It’s insane and it’s confounding and it’s thrilling. And it’s magic.