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The last time I wrote about The Killers, I was not kind. It was 2017, and they had just put out their fifth record, Wonderful Wonderful. Times did not appear to be good in Killers-ville. Bassist Mark Stoermer was publicly backing out of the band. (Guitarist Dave Keuning would eventually join him as a part-time Killer.) Singer Brandon Flowers openly questioned their relevance in interviews, rhetorically asking in Billboard, “Well, what kind of mark have I left?”
And then there were the songs. At best, Wonderful Wonderful was knowingly cheesy, like the part in “The Man” in which Flowers refers to himself “USDA certified lean.” At the record’s frequent worst, however, The Killers once again grasped at an elusive profundity, ruminating like middle-aged rock ‘n’ roll Hamlets about the fragile state of their own creative mortality. The album ended with the laughably lousy “Have All The Songs Been Written,” a self-pitying blues-rock dirge featuring some aimless Mark Knopfler guitar licks and Flowers’ greeting-card existentialism: “Has every ship gone sailing / has every heart gone blue?”
Who wanted that kind of defeatism from, of all bands, The Killers? Flowers once sang about burning down the highway skyline on the back of a damn hurricane! And now he was droning on about sailing ships and blue hearts? What is the point of this band if they aren’t playing the arrogant and indestructible arena-rockers?
At the time of Wonderful Wonderful, it was painfully clear that all the good Killers songs had indeed been written. With the band crumbling internally and struggling to recover their lost joie de vivre, I made a cruel but honest observation: “The Killers seem like a band on their last legs.”
Having written them off, I initially ignored the singles for The Killers’ latest LP, the extremely Killers-monikered Imploding The Mirage. “Why bother?” I thought. They’re finished. But on a lark, I streamed a promo of the album. The first track that queued up was “My Own Soul’s Warning.” What in the hell does “my own soul’s warning” mean? The first verse offered little guidance. Flowers sang about how he “tried going against my own soul’s warning / And in the end, something just didn’t feel right.” (Is Brandon Flowers’ soul not trustworthy? If he doesn’t have soul, does that now make him a soldier?) But like so many memorable Brandon Flowers lyrics, this line made somehow made sense because he sang it as if it made sense.
Then something incredible happened: Flowers hollered, “But man … I thought I could fly!” and then there was this huge rush of synths and guitars and drums and my heart was suddenly three feet outside of my chest. Suddenly, I could feel my defenses being lowered by this silly (though sometimes brilliantly silly) band. Here was a Killers song in 2020 doing exactly what I always want a classic Killers song to do, against my will even. I could only laugh at my reaction: Were the Killers … kinda great again?
Two songs later, to my utter surprise, they did it again: On paper, “Caution” is another example of The Killers’ doing ersatz Springsteen. There’s a guileless narrator drawn to mixed metaphors like a horse to a flame. There’s a “featherweight queen” with “Hollywood eyes” that the guy is determined to whisk away to a magical land that is “wild and free.” While the plot about how they’re trying to escape this town seems straightforward, little else about “Caution” makes a lick of sense. (Sample lyric: “Doesn’t like birthdays / They remind her of why / She can go straight from zero / To the Fourth of July.”) But it didn’t matter: I was with them. I have no idea what you’re saying, Brandon, but I understand you.
At this point in the review, I should be pulling the standard 2020 music-critic maneuver and link “Caution” to (waves hands at all this). Does this song “speak to the moment that we are in” by making allusions to “the apocalypse” and “our communal isolation” and [insert your favorite pandemic cliché here]? I won’t kid you: Hell no. “Caution” has nothing to say about anything, nor does any other track on Imploding The Mirage. What this album offers instead is escapism. It’s a portal to a lost world in which tens of thousands of people gather in arenas and sing along to confusing songs with irresistible choruses. A place where I desperately want to be. There are dozens of better albums I have heard in 2020, but few of those records have made me feel as giddy as the part in “Caution” when Lindsey freaking Buckingham magically appears and plays a searing guitar solo that pretty freaking accurately replicates the glory of “The Chain.” This album doesn’t comment on the pandemic; this album irradiates it temporarily from your brain.
I haven’t spoken about the rest of Imploding The Mirage all that much. It’s also pretty good — which, I must once again reiterate, is much, much better than I expected going in — but since this is a Killers album, it should go without saying that Imploding The Mirage is pretty egregiously front-loaded. In the back half, there are some inevitably goofy flourishes, like the electro-calypso pulse that moves through “When The Dreams Run Dry” or the blustery Born In The U.S.A. homages of the title track. These songs aren’t essential, but at least they approach the likability of the filler on Hot Fuss. Meanwhile, the good stuff that’s fronted — basically the first six tracks, which also include the hard-charging “Dying Breed” and the U2-like “Blowback” — is so much better than what The Killers have mustered in at least a decade. Substantial credit for that must be given to the band’s key collaborators: Jonathan Rado of Foxygen and the excellent producer and songwriter Shawn Everett, whose work on The War On Drugs’ A Deeper Understanding is an especially obvious influence on Imploding The Mirage. (Adam Granduciel himself shows up on “Blowback,” for what it’s worth. But his spiritual fingerprints all over this record.)
Given that A Deeper Understanding is one of my favorite albums of the last five years, you can take my praise for The Killers’ most War On Drugs-like songs with a grain of salt. Perhaps the fact that they’re taking cues from a younger band could be viewed as another sign of decline. The Killers certainly aren’t what they were in their aughts-era prime. Let’s be real: Imploding The Mirage is the work of a duo, Flowers and drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr., trying to hold the brand together with some well-heeled hired hands.
And yet, when I put the album on, none of that matters for once. Imploding The Mirage is just plain fun, at a time when “fun” feels like the opposite of plain and more like a balm. When you hear this record, it often makes no sense. But I got it. My, ahem, own soul’s warning was that I needed it.
Imploding The Mirage is out on Friday via Island Records. Get it here.