“Nuh-nuh-nuhthing can break/nuh-nuthing can break me down,” intones Brandon Flowers on “The Man,” the Killers’ lead single from their new Wonderful Wonderful, out since September. He’s right: for the beloved Las Vegas band to have persisted as long as they have, in so intense and ridiculous a vein of magnificent rock theatricality, is a marvel. I’ve heard nothing as outrageous as “The Man” on the radio all year. Over a massively glittery disco beat complete with booming drums and funk guitar, rather like David Bowie’s “Fame” blown up to arena size, Flowers bellows a bunch of macho stock phrases (“I got gas in the tank/I got money in the bank”) in a sensational parodic fantasy about male power and control. The buzzy wah-wah keyboards, distorted guitar solo, and twirly synthesizer filigree capture an appropriate blend of swagger and desperation, yet the prevailing mood is gleeful, and to listen to “The Man” is to witness a rock & roll hustler smirking at how handsome he looks in the mirror. “Baby I’m gifted, see what I mean/USDA certified lean!” he announces.
It’s an apt line, for the man excels at self-objectification. Since Hot Fuss (2004), band’s synth-rock debut, Flowers has champed at the bit with twitchy, flirty energy with both lust and ennui. He’s not a sex object in any rock-conventional sense — his flat nasal everyman drawl suggests an adolescent dreamer trying on different poses, moving from costume to costume, trying to emulate his favorite role models on the posters in his bedroom, which explains the confounding array of genres that the Killers have tinkered with and the unity of their overall project. A rock fan drawn to romantic melodrama in all its festering erotic glory may very well see no contradiction in an aesthetic equally beholden to Neil Tennant, Stevie Nicks, and Bruce Springsteen. The Killers’ transhistorical camp combines the glamour, detachment, and kitsch of English synthpop with the grandiosity, sincerity, and kitsch of American classic rock. Their heartland rock, their desert blues, their evocations of neon tigers and dustland fairytales — this is what happens when the expressionist yearning for adventure and transcendence meets the formal discipline of a crafty songwriter with an eye for archetypal images. Killers songs inhabit a sweeping fantasyland steeped in all flavors of romantic myth, American and otherwise, where small-town kids sneak around making out behind the Ferris wheel in the amusement park after hours, dream of becoming urban sophisticates who wear makeup and drink martinis at exclusive cocktail parties, grapple with the devil, and find each other on the dancefloor. An idealist, a charmer, an American rockboy aware of his status as such, Flowers confounds as a frontman; he can’t decide if he wants to tell mythic stories or be a mythic figure himself.
“Wonderful Wonderful,” which opens the new album, exemplifies this approach. Creepy bassline, clangy distorted drums, angular clatters of guitar noise, and whooshy synth zooms simmer and stomp while Flowers gets increasingly hysterical over a “motherless child,” commanding said child to “be of good cheer,” making grand untenable promises. The song offers up Flowers as savior — to the audience, to the object of his affections, to anyone needing an erotic idol — as he announces, “My arm is reached out/I am here!” That’s how you start an album, kids. Even for the Killers, Wonderful Wonderful is brash and absurd. It’s been five years since their last official studio album, Battle Born (2012), so the new album has been marketed as a comeback, but that discounts Flowers’s solo music and last year’s excellent Christmas collection. To my ears it recalls the erotic histrionics on Flowers’s second eclectic solo album, The Desired Effect (2015), while perhaps replicating the upbeat gloss of Hot Fuss. By now, however, their various genres have blurred together; regardless of whether they privilege synthesizers or guitars, it all has the same sweaty garish glow. Wonderful Wonderful gleams and wails, an arena-rock record smoothed over with cold keyboard embellishments but inflated with sublimely inane confidence. “Run for Cover,” the requisite instant anthem, sprints at full speed over bony hammering guitar chords and whirring synthesizer, topping a rousing singalong chorus with a sharp, frantic, jittery guitar solo. “The Calling” saunters, cocky and amused over a guitar riff whose cowboyish strut is later replicated by a high keyboard that adds some spacey flicker. They’ve also cultivated their synthpop side: “Out of My Mind” kicks in with a massive, ringing, mechanical dance hook that spins round and round in circles. More surprisingly, the lovely ballad “Some Kind of Love” soars, surrounding Flowers’s electronically garbled moan with a plaintively quivering net of stark piano chords and thick cool air, a placid loveliness that delights.
That this music packs such pathos is a tribute to the scope and weirdness of the band’s ambition. A talent for apotheosizing the ridiculous could easily backfire. There’s no reason why dreaming big and habitually overshooting should result in anything other than the usual tripe, but this is their secret if anything is: their best music is their most shameless and their most prone to romantic overstatement, for this is when Flowers’s mystical visions most readily bloom. I don’t want to stress their silliness without sufficiently conveying their emotional power; their silliness creates the emotional power. There’s a magnificent tenderness to Wonderful Wonderful that correlates with the disproportionate mismatch between form and feeling. Like Fleetwood Mac, say, the Killers’ accessible pop-rock sounds tightly functional on the radio, yet on its own terms it expands to an epic scale that dazzles and confounds. Courtly gallantry, sexual torment, and the instincts of the Vegas entertainer make Flowers an oddly operatic figure, and the vaguely antiquated high-camp tone that defines the album fascinates. The album’s mythic sweep collides with its polished, arena-ready surface to produce a paradoxical modernism of intersection. The discipline of writing compact, three-minute songs jammed full of riffs and hooks and sound effects restrains Flowers, who thankfully isn’t writing operas of his own. But the compression also heightens the music’s emotional punch and degree of hysteria. The resulting album is almost embarrassingly intense, indecorously intimate, forgetting to blush while expressing feelings too huge for the songs to contain. As with much of Flowers’ recent work, particularly The Desired Effect, Wonderful Wonderful arranges a set of musical puzzleboxes in a haunting imagistic sequence: from “Wonderful Wonderful,” in which he prays and dances for rain before stretching out his arms to welcome the eager listener, to his macho flex in “The Man,” to the shocked scramble in “Run for Cover” and “Tyson vs. Douglas,” to the romantic yearning of “Some Kind of Love” and “Out of My Mind.” Boxing references keep popping up; so does the image of listening, persistently, to a conch shell. The sequence parses emotionally, like a folk story reconstructed from a dream.
“I got skin in the game,” insists Flowers, and Wonderful Wonderful thunders with smashing energy and throbbing desire. It’s more thrilling than rock, more manipulative than kitsch. If Great Albums exist as a category, the Killers have simulated and hence made one — a monument to romantic hunger’s lurid power.
Wonderful Wonderful (2017) is available from Amazon and other online retailers.