Analogue Music | Unpopular Opinions: The Killers' Battle Born

Unpopular Opinions: The Killers' 'Battle Born'

By Mark Geil John Barber

While promoting Wonderful Wonderful, Brandon Flowers criticized its predecessor, Battle Born, telling NME, “On the whole I just wasn’t happy with it.”

I think he’s dead wrong about his own music. My buddy John Barber is also a Killers fan, so I wrote him a note to see if, as I suspect, John and I have more accurate opinions of Killers music than The Killers. Here’s our conversation.

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From: Mark Geil
To: John Barber

I was two songs in when the album made the leap for me. I had been a marginal Killers fan before, not on the can’t-wait-for-release-day level, so I was only casually paying attention on that first listen. 

“Flesh and Bone” was good. I’ve always been a sucker for “Gladiator” anthems like Bruce’s “No Surrender” and “Flesh and Bone” and everything Muse has ever made. If a song can make me feel St. Elmo’s Fire burning in me, I’m in. 

I was therefore more attentive when Brandon Flowers hooked me by track two: “Blonde hair blowing in the summer wind / A blue-eyed girl playing in the sand / I’d been on her trail for a little while / But that was the night that she broke down and held my hand.” Four lines, and I was dunked in a memory of my own. I was 13-years-old, at a beach in North Carolina, and my friend and I noticed these two girls in the house next door, and they noticed us. The world outside that sand, that blonde hair, and those blue eyes ceased to exist for an everlasting week, and finally she held my hand.

Verse two snatched me from my memory and told me a story, like the best songs do. I cared, really cared, about what happened to these two young wanderers. How can a song make me care so much in a single minute’s time? Is it too much of a stretch to place “Runaways” next to Springsteen’s “The River?” And, since I know you’re a Billy Joel fan, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”? 

Battle Born cover art
Battle Born cover art

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From: John Barber
To: Mark Geil 

So here’s the thing about “Runaways”: it’s perfect. Springsteen is the right touchstone, but I think Flowers improved on the model. It’s not just “The River,” though. It’s what happens to “Thunder Road” fifteen years down the line, after they’ve cased the Promised Land and come back to reality (maybe it’s halfway between “Thunder Road” and “My Hometown”). 

I spent the first few months of Battle Born listening to “Flesh and Bone,” “Runaways,” and “Miss Atomic Bomb” on repeat. They’re these massive love anthems, right? And it wasn’t until six months later that I realized that the best song on the album is actually the quiet one: “Be Still.”

“Don't break character
You've got a lot of heart
Is this real or just a dream
Rise up like the sun
Labor till the work is done”

Thoughts? What’s the best song on the album?

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From: Mark Geil
To: John Barber

“Be Still” is absolutely the best song on the album. I don’t know that I’ve heard a more tender song, ever, and it’s from a band often criticized for bombast and camp.  

Plenty of critics have made up their minds about the band: they are overblown, melodramatic and, like their Vegas home, all shine and no substance.

I sent the song to my daughter as she was heading off to college, and I will always be thankful for it. Stick with me here: there’s a verse in the Bible about this thing that happens when we want to pray but we just can’t muster the words. It says the Holy Spirit intercedes with “sighs too deep for words.” “Be Still” interceded for me to my daughter, telling her exactly what I wanted to say without me knowing quite how to say it. That’s the mark of a great song. 

“Be still. Close your eyes. Soon enough you’ll be on your own, steady and straight. And if they drag you through the mud, it doesn’t change what’s in your blood.” It’s a lullaby and a graduation speech in the same song. It bests Dylan’s “Forever Young” because it is, well, battle born. It acknowledges the place of innocence amidst struggle and hardship.  

There’s an unexpected companion piece to the song on the same album: “Deadlines and Commitments.” I read a review that maligned the song, but it was the sort of review that would malign anything by The Killers. Plenty of critics have made up their minds about the band: they are overblown, melodramatic and, like their Vegas home, all shine and no substance. We’d get a lot of grief from some about our praise for Battle Born. How would you respond? 

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From: John Barber To: Mark Geil

The Killers are overblown and melodramatic. Duh. Also, water is wet and the Pope is Catholic. Watch the video for "Miss Atomic Bomb" for crying out loud. So what?  

The idea that substance can't be found alongside shine is crazy. My son is fond of saying that The Killers just have one song that they do over and over, but I think he's dead wrong. Battle Born may be largely bombast, but it doesn't exist in a vacuum. Day & Age is an album with substance coming out of its ears, but that doesn't mean that Battle Born is just empty calories. "Be Still" is an anthem unlike any song I can think of in pop culture - you said it well when you said it communicates a thing you don't have words for. And, as people of faith, Flowers' lyrics are so resonant. He's outspoken about his Mormon faith, so there's definitely a doctrinal separation, but it's no less poignant when he sings on "Heart of a Girl":

"And, deep in the night, I feel the presence
Of something that was long ago told to me
There is a hand, guiding the river 
The river to wide open sea 
And deep in my heart, in and again 
On any mountain, no I'm not afraid 
Standing on stone, you stand beside me 
And honor the plans that were made"

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From: Mark Geil
To: John Barber

What, a tear didn’t trickle down your cheek during that La La Land ending to the “Miss Atomic Bomb” video?  

You’re wise to touch on the spirituality of the lyrics on Battle Born. Go for melodramatic overblown anthems without spirit and you get a Total Eclipse of the Heart (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I love to belt Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing At All,” (really, I do) but I don’t believe it. Add spirit to the shine, and you get the best of U2, or Springsteen, or The Killers. With spirit, a song like “A Matter of Time” becomes more than nostalgic treacle about what once was and could have been. It becomes Adam and Eve standing outside the Garden, pondering what they’d lost.  

Aren’t all the great rock albums about searching?

Okay, one last question. Back to Flowers’ recent dismissal of the album in NME, “I think we were a little bit aimless on Battle Born. We were searching. You’re not always gonna find it, I mean we’re always trying, but you’re not always gonna touch what you’re reaching for and we didn’t quite get there – I don’t feel like. I don’t mean to take anything say from it, you know there are songs on it that I love, but just as a whole I wasn’t very happy with it.”

Clearly, we say he’s wrong. Does he now believe the critics who called it, as you said, overblown and melodramatic? Or is he missing something in his own creation?

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From: John Barber   To: Mark Geil

So here’s how I’d answer that. First, aren’t all the great rock albums about searching? I mean, when you look back at the ones that have stood the test of time—The Joshua TreeDark Side of the MoonMadman Across the Water, early Dylan, all of Springsteen, on and on—isn’t that what they’re all about? And isn’t that why they resonate? The ones where the artists seem to be in their professional groove are the ones we forget. 

Second, Flowers said that he wasn’t very happy with it. Is anybody ever happy with a thing they made?   

Third, and this is a hill I’ll die on - I don’t really care what he thinks. It’s out of his hands when it hits the shelf. Authorial intent is overrated. 

I really love Battle Born. I really love the new record too, but I suspect in ten years, it’ll be Battle Born I still reach for.