The Killers just can’t seem to catch a break.
You’d think that penning one of the most iconic, ubiquitous pop songs of the millennium would win you some points. Same with putting out a debut album that almost single-handedly prolonged the life of rock radio for an extra year or two. By all accounts, Brandon Flowers and company are nice guys who work hard, put on an exceptional live show, and have a better track record of radio singles than any other rock band this side of the Foo Fighters. But The Killers have never been cool. They certainly never earned the stamp of approval from critics, who took the “No Fun Police” stance against the singles from Hot Fuss and then vowed to bury the band when Brandon Flowers had the audacity to suggest that 2006’s Sam’s Town would be “one of the best albums in the last 20 years.” Most music writers expected The Killers to be a flash in the pan, and they were graciously willing to help the band reach their inevitable demise.
But a funny thing happened along the way: The Killers held on. As radio rock died, they kept writing hits. As the critical darling indie rock bands of the early 2000s slid toward mediocrity or obscurity or both, The Killers remained stubbornly present. Now, 13 years after Hot Fuss and five years after their last album, The Killers are back, and they are every bit as inescapable as they always have been. In the release week of September 22nd, which saw a massive deluge of new albums from acclaimed and up-and-coming artists, no one got as much press as The Killers.
Part of it could be nostalgia. A once-colossal band coming back after five years away to survey the wreckage of rock ‘n’ roll? The “rock is dead” thinkpieces write themselves! Add the fact that The Killers seem to be splintering behind the scenes—both bassist Mark Stoermer and guitarist Dave Keuning have retired as touring members of the band—and it’s almost hard not to write about their new album. But The Killers still have a magnetism that, we can probably all agree, is very rare in a rock band these days. And the magnetism isn’t just about “Mr. Brightside” and how it still sounds good at festivals or sold-out Madison Square Garden shows. On the contrary, on Wonderful Wonderful, the band’s long-awaited fifth album, the magnetism is still there in the music, as well.
The Killers have tried to market Wonderful Wonderful as a “return to form” after 2012’s Battle Born, an album they clearly do not like. (Counterpoint: Battle Born is the best Killers LP.) Interestingly, though, of the five albums in the band’s discography, Wonderful Wonderful sounds the least like a Killers record. Crucially, the once dominant roar of Dave Keuning’s guitar has been relegated to a background supporting role. Despite Keuning’s decision to stop touring, he was supposedly a part of the recording process for this album. You wouldn’t know it from listening to most of the songs, though, or from looking at the back cover, which inexplicably features just Brandon, Mark, and drummer Ronnie Vannucci, Jr. The last two tracks on the record, the spooky “The Calling” and the meditative “Have All the Songs Been Written?”, are the two where the guitar seems to take center stage, and Keuning doesn’t play on either of them. (The soulful guitarwork on the closing track was provided by Mark Knoplfer of Dire Straits fame, while Stoermer handled guitar on “The Calling.”)
The benching of Keuning pulls some of The Killers’ identity away from this album. It’s not the only factor with that effect, either. Wonderful Wonderful also lacks a clear single, a first in The Killers catalog. Actual lead single “The Man,” with its Bowie-esque groove, is catchy enough, but is missing the anthemic punch that the band has always been so good at providing with singles. There is no “Mr. Brightside” or “All These Things That I’ve Done” on this album, no “When You Were Young” or “Read My Mind” or “Runaways.” The closest is “Run for Cover” a kinetic, synth-led rocker with plenty of zip and attitude (not to mention a timely “fake news” reference), but the hook isn’t as sharp as virtually anything on Battle Born, let alone side one of Hot Fuss.
What Wonderful Wonderful lacks in poppy immediacy, though, it makes up for in intimacy. The Killers have never been known for hugely personal songwriting. The closest to personal they got was probably Sam’s Town, ostensibly a concept record about a young man Flower “breaking out of a two-star town” and chasing his dreams. They’ve always been a band that thrived on writing huge, sometimes ambiguous, and usually universally relatable songs. Wonderful Wonderful dispenses with that blueprint. The meat of the record was inspired by Brandon’s wife, who suffers from a condition known as Complex PTSD. Flowers recently revealed that he cancelled part of the tour for his last solo LP, 2015’s The Desired Effect, because his wife was having suicidal thoughts.
That heavy subject matter forms the backbone for Wonderful Wonderful. Flowers navigates complicated webs of emotion in the album’s mid-section, which directly addresses his wife’s struggles and how they have impacted his role as a husband and a father. “Rut,” a radiant U2-esque power ballad, is written from her perspective, built around the lines “Don’t give up on me, ‘cause I’m just in a rut/I’m climbing, but the walls keep stacking up.” The next track, “Life to Come,” plays out as Flowers’ response. Where “Rut” closes with the desperate plea “Don’t you give up on me,” “Life to Come” plays like the renewal of a wedding vow. “I didn’t see this coming, I admit it/But if you think I’ll buckle, forget it/I told you that I’d be the one/I’ll be there in the life to come,” Flowers sings, before the rhythm section kicks in and he asks his bride to “have a little faith in me, girl/Just dropkick the shame.” On paper, that last line probably looks hokey. But Flowers’ unwavering earnestness has always been his greatest asset as a frontman, and it turns “Life to Come” into an incredibly moving affirmation of love and devotion.
The same is true for the Brian Eno-influenced slowburn of “Some Kind of Love.” Flowers reportedly wrote the song after coming home from the Desired Effect tour to be with his wife. “Can’t do this alone/We need you at home/There’s so much to see/We know that you’re strong,” he sings at the end, accompanied by the three most important guests he’s ever brought on for an album: his children. It’s a beautiful, restrained moment that ranks among the most affecting in the entire Killers repertoire.
While Flowers radiates strength and resilience on “Life to Come” and “Some Kind of Love,” some of the best moments on Wonderful Wonderful are where we see the doubt creep in. He’s not doubting his wife or his marriage: his commitment and faith on those fronts is sound. Instead, he’s doubting himself. On “Tyson vs. Douglas,” he recalls watching the eponymous 1990 boxing match, where Tyson suffered the first loss of his career at the hands of a 42-1 underdog. “When I saw him go down/Felt like somebody lied/I had to close my eyes/Just to stop the tears,” Flowers sings. It’s a song about realizing your heroes aren’t invincible or infallible, but it’s also more than that. When the bridge rolls around, Flowers’ thoughts shift from Tyson’s incredible loss to himself. “Feelin’ the slip again/I don’t wanna fall/You said it was nothing/But maybe you’re wrong.” He wants to be the hero for his wife and their kids, the big strong man who keeps them safe and never lets them down. But if the unbeatable Mike Tyson could get knocked out by someone who wasn’t even deemed a threat, how long until Brandon’s kids seem him fall, too?
On “Have All the Songs Been Written?”, Flowers arrives at a moment where he feels like his number is up. “Have all the songs been written?/Have all your needs been met?/Have all these years been worth it?/Or am I the great regret?” Struggling with writer’s block while working on the songs for Wonderful Wonderful, Flowers turned to Bono for advice. Did he have anything left to say? Or had he written his last great song? “Have all the songs been written?” was the subject line of the email Flowers sent to the U2 frontman, who encouraged him to turn it into a song. Fittingly, the track that came from that advice moves gradually from self-doubt to assurance. On the bridge, Brandon’s voice trembles as he tries to reassure himself that the storm clouds surrounding his family will pass and things will be good again. “When the train returns to the rails/When the ship is back in the harbor/I will make you happy again/I can see it, I believe it.” He’s not ready for his Tyson vs. Douglas moment just yet.
Back in June, when The Killers dropped “The Man” as the first single from Wonderful Wonderful, the song felt oddly tongue-in-cheek for the anthem-obsessed band. A send-up of the aggressive, ambitious masculinity that The Killers—especially Flowers—exhibited early on in their careers, “The Man” felt oddly out of tune with the times. In 2017, society is slowly deconstructing the old ideas of what it means to be a “Real Man.” Yet, here The Killers were, seemingly reinforcing those ideals. In context, though, “The Man” shines a light on the concept and arc of Wonderful Wonderful. Throughout these songs, Flowers realizes that all the macho masculinity in the world can neither help his wife fight her demons nor give their children the love and support they need. Instead, he makes himself vulnerable, being candid about his fears and frailties and being empathetic to his wife’s.
The result is the most personal and intimate record in the Killers discography. Given all the inspiration from Flowers’ own life (as well as the reduced role for Dave Keuning), it’s also the Killers album that feels most like a solo LP. It’s hard to imagine much being different about Wonderful Wonderful if it was the third Brandon Flowers record instead of the fifth Killers record. Billing and branding aside, though, Wonderful Wonderful is a surprisingly deep and nuanced piece of work from a band not often recognized for being deep and nuanced. The critics still won’t get it, and certain fans will probably miss the rafter-shaking anthems, but after five years of waiting, it’s a pleasant surprise to get something new from The Killers at all—let alone something that feels so brave, so bold, and so unreservedly human.