Being a Killers fan in 2017 is a strange thing. After spending nearly 15 years together as a successful American rock band, The Killers have now become “The Killers” – a different version of themselves that’s still a studio group keen on making music, but with only two out of four members interested in touring. The departure of guitarist Dave Keuning and bassist Mark Stoermer from performing leaves Brandon Flowers and drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. at the helm, and a fifth studio album that inconspicuously features Keuning on less than half the tracks. So, who are The Killers now? What kind of band are they trying to be?
With a solid five-year gap since their last studio record Battle Born in 2012, The Killers have seemingly had time to think about that. Recently, Flowers questioned what it means to be a rock band in 2017 when he considers the current state of rock ‘n’ roll to be “bleak.” So, for the guy that wanted his band in 2004 to be called “the American U2,” what is the solution to save rock music? Well, on the newest record Wonderful Wonderful, apparently the solution to save rock is, well, to set aside the guitars and trade them in for pop synths, funky bass, and disco drums. So, effectively, not be a rock band.
The intent of Wonderful Wonderful might not exactly be to save what’s lost, but merely hold together what still remains. Lead single “The Man” is a great marriage of The Killers embracing their own self-awareness, groovy basslines, and sweet harmonies while still nostalgically winking at the man Brandon Flowers was during their seminal first album, Hot Fuss. The record’s second single, “Run For Cover,” feels most like the classic Killers’ sound with magnetic drums and driving guitar, but that’s probably because it was written eight years ago. Now, in this context, it comes across as solid but very safe.
Meanwhile, the title track “Wonderful Wonderful” is dark, gritty, and sonically the most interesting on the record in terms of storytelling and tone. It’s unfortunate that the unique vigor of that tone subsides as the record goes on, only popping up later in “The Calling” – a moody, sexy, and memorable number that, I kid you not, opens with Woody Harrelson reading a passage from the Bible. The opposite of that thematic darkness arises in the sweet, 80’s pop of “Rut” and “Life to Come,” which both sound like they belong in a John Hughes film, and were, perhaps, written 30 years ago. And that isn’t exactly a bad thing – their sweeping metaphors and arena-packing choruses have decidedly the most U2-esque lyrics: “But don’t give up on me / ‘cause I’m just in a rut / I’m climbing but the walls / keep stacking up” and “If you call my name / I will run whether or not it’s tonight / Or the life to come.”
But where does that leave the rest of the record? Flowers has revealed that much of the album was inspired by his wife’s recent struggle with PTSD stemming from childhood trauma. “Some Kind of Love” goes as far as to include a small choir of Flowers’ own sons singing to his wife and their mom, “Can’t do this alone / we need you at home / there’s so much to see / we know that you’re strong.” “Out of My Mind” calls out specific conversations of Brandon trying to impress his wife by name-dropping legends like Springsteen and Paul McCartney, while “Have All The Songs Been Written” laments the importance of writing just “one more” song to get through to her.
As the band admitted, this is indeed the most personal Killers record to date. Unfortunately, most of the personal anecdotes overshadow the universal and heavy, metaphorical lyrics the band is most known for. “When You Were Young,” “Somebody Told Me,” “Human,” and even “Mr. Brightside” – to name a few – all have choruses ripe with “wait, what’s going on there?”-similes and turns of phrase. Mostly gone from Wonderful Wonderful are the fun, wry, and bombastic lyrics you want to blast while driving down a deserted highway.
So, who are The Killers in 2017, and what are they trying to say? I don’t know, to be honest. Wonderful Wonderful implies that, while not all songs have already been written, perhaps the best ones came from a different time and were written by different men. There are certainly highlights on the record that shouldn’t be diminished; Stoermer’s thumping bass and Vannucci’s drum hooks are latent with intention, class, and style on nearly every track, but overall – as a Killers fan in 2017 – I know they can do better.
Highlights: “The Calling,” “Life To Come,” “Wonderful Wonderful,” “The Man”