WONDERFUL WONDERFUL by The Killers
Genre: Pop Rock
Favorite songs: “Wonderful Wonderful,” “Run for Cover,” “The Calling”
“Mr. Brightside” had all that you could want in a debut. The music video was glittery and provocative, and the lyrics were straightforward and easy to grasp. As a prepubescent kid, whenever it popped up on MTV hits, I got worried, as it was edging way too close to being inappropriate, but that’s what drew me in from the get-go. It oozed of cool. It was what cool sounded like. Brandon Flowers was cool looking and The Killers seemed to embody coolness altogether. Even when ruminating and stressing about on-the-prowl ex-girlfriends, Flowers managed a slick apathy that spoke fluidly to alt-rockers and club-goers alike. Whoever you were, you wanted The Killers to soundtrack your night out. They had our attention and it was just a matter of proving to us how they would keep it. That’s been the struggle ever since; there wasn’t much left to admire past the sexy veneer, but the Killers had potential to mature from meh post-punk imitators to full-on rock stalwarts.
Their sophomore album, SAM’S TOWN, saw them dabbling with a more rugged sound, and got them close to perfecting their own brand of suave rock. While praised in hindsight, it was 10 years too late, and the lambasting it received upon release determined the sound for their next album: the nauseating dance-pop refit, DAY AND AGE. When asked about the direction of DAY AND AGE, Flowers commented, “it’s like looking at Sam’s Town from Mars.” Well, you should’ve stayed on Earth, Flowers, because in the heartland was where you worked best. Though they always had a bit of danciness to their sound, one prayed they would never fully try to don that outfit, but alas, in 2008 we were burdened with their most vapid mess yet. While this transformation felt right from a business and musical standpoint at the time for The Killers, it was a sure way to dishearten old fans and push away new ones. Where was all that virile, if mostly empty, swagger that the Killers had previously so shamelessly emitted? At least those guys tapped into the winning magnetism of frivolity and rock. Their last album, BATTLE BORN, saw them trying to be the greatest rock band in the world (the last thing they should try to be), with a further emphasis on vain bombast. On their latest release The Killers continue to take themselves too seriously, jettisoning any sense of humility that creeps up.
Upon hearing the mysterious, tentative guitar strumming opening “Run For Cover,” one of the first singles for WONDERFUL WONDERFUL, there was a momentary thought that maybe, just maybe, The Killers are going minimalist. This was immediately thrown to the wayside as their signature synthesizers and drums crash the party—but it works. The cooperative vitality present on this track is palpable. Mark Stoermer’s determination is echoed in each bass lick, Ronnie Vannucci pumps the drums with poise, and Flowers belts, “Run for cover / Run while you can, baby, don’t look back,” with his usual earnest, but restrained, admiration for Bruce Springsteen. “Run For Cover” is a lean, safe testament to the Killer’s strengths.
Yet Flowers goes a slightly different route for opener and title track, “Wonderful Wonderful,” which plays out like a brooding gospel hymn, evoking a somewhat southern gothic vibe. The short, trip-hop flavored intro gives way to lumbering drums and Flower’s reverberated vocals. On the chorus he shouts as a zealous preacher, “Motherless child, follow my voice / And I shall give thee great cause to rejoice,” dunking our heads into the water and cleansing us of our sins. But there’s a sense of hypocrisy, suggestion that perhaps it is the preacher himself who is in need of cleansing. Snaking, back-treading synths intermittently surprise to complement the sexed-up, swampy aura of the song and steely, clanging guitars show up for a moment before the song stalls out with dissonant feedback and off-kilter drumming. It’s a rattling opener and the combination of its elements—brazenness and blues—feels totally organic.
Unfortunately, the remainder of the album still finds Flowers trying to fit into boxes that are simply not cut out for him. In an interview with NME, Flowers claims that the inspiration for the first single, “The Man,” came from “. . . a place of insecurity,” and was based off his former self who “would just puff my chest out and . . . put a lot of negativity out there.” Self-parody is a new one for the Killers, but they don’t fully commit; you can tell there is something holding them back from laughing at themselves (ego, perhaps?). Flowers tries to ride the same billboard-climbing waves dominated by Bruno Mars, “I got money in the bank / I got news for you baby, you’re looking at the man / I got skin in the game,” with any trace of self-deprecating retrospection displaced by platitudinous funk.
In recent years, Flowers has demonstrated a proclivity to fall back on U2-like turgidity, and WONDERFUL WONDERFUL features some of the most blatant instances, the influence wavering from heavy inspiration to downright imitation. Such is evinced on “Life to Come,” where his idiosyncratic balancing of gloom and ostentation is almost entirely absent and highlights the need for Flowers to stop pretending to be Bono or Springsteen and just be himself. That’s what attracted us in the first place, isn’t it? When there are hints of Flowers tackling his own identity, especially as a husband and father, they either wallow in misguided maximalism, succumb to cloying sentimentality, or both. Glimmering ’80s ballad “Rut” and “Some Kind of Love” are both victims of the latter, losing all good intention of extolling the strength of his wife in bloated production, with an ethereal, slogging atmosphere that delineates the exact sound the Killers should steer clear from.
The success in the stand-out tracks ultimately lies in their refinement of old sounds, finding what worked from the past and toying with it. It’s a little late, but finally there is evidence of natural progression rather than forced molding. Flowers works with this same ambience found on the title track on “The Calling,” appropriately featuring Texan through-and-through Woody Harrelson reading a passage from Matthew 9:10-12. It aptly juggles southern blues twang and beaming synths; the exterior is a decrepit church, the interior, a decadent saloon glossed up with neon “beer on tap” signs and denizens sporting skin-tight leather, eager to sin. While this sound is only touched upon sporadically in WONDERFUL WONDERFUL, it stands as a viable avenue for The Killers that hopefully they’ll soon recognize and pursue.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend