The Killers' new record Imploding The Mirage is an unexpected 2020 highlight
It’s unlikely to win over any new fans, but Imploding The Mirage renews some of The Killers’ strongest tenets - and it's one hell of a listen.
It’s hard to believe that, until the age of 23, Brandon Flowers had never truly heard a Bruce Springsteen record.
"I prefer to call it my rebirth," Flowers told MTV in 2006, signposting his heartland passions in the lead-up to The Killers’ sophomore record. “I fell in love with the Smiths and the Pet Shop Boys when I was 12 years old, and I never thought that could happen again… I had another one of those 12-year-old experiences when I was 23, but this time with Bruce Springsteen,” he continued, describing his delayed discovery as 'elation.' “He's a gift, and I didn't know… there was something in his music that touched what I was going through, the process of falling back in love with my America."
If The Killers made their name on the frontlines of the early-2000s new wave revival, those British sensibilities betrayed their all-American beginnings. Hot Fuss, released a fortnight before Flowers’ 23rd birthday, was an arrival steeped in synth-pop, mascara melodrama and Glamorous Indie Rock N’ Roll. Equal parts menace and romance, fuelled by both first-principles riffs and ornate walls of sound, it’s no surprise it took the band from their Las Vegas stages to international stardom. Though theirs is a city synonymous with flagging veterans and cozy residencies, it was the Boss — not their loss— that brought them back to the dustbowl.
In the years since Sam’s Town, Flowers’ affection for Springsteen has become something of a joke – in 2020, a headline like Killers' Next LP Will Show Strong Influence Of ... Bruce Springsteen!? could only come from The Onion – but The Killers’ love of stadium status anthems pulls from many sensitive stars of decades past. The band can count many of their biggest influences as fans, with artists like David Bowie, Elton John and Bono all onetime adherents. Flowers inducted The Cars at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, only to memorialize Ric Ocasek the very next year with a very personal accounting of his respect. It’s easy to see Flowers as a newer make of that older model – a pop-inclined rock frontman who leans on synths and theatrics, more Bruce Hornsby than Bon Jovi.
The truly indelible strain of Springsteen comes not in The Killers’ musicality, but in their vision of America: a land defined by its own self-image, home to cowboys, rebels and weary nobodies who might just make it out of this dead-end town. The band has never truly left that guise, but Imploding The Mirage proves a revitalization, one brought on by experience, hindsight and a new take on how the story ends.
If age has humbled Brandon Flowers’ vision of starry-eyed runaways, time has added a depth to that escape, the substance of the life he’s lived filling the cracks he’s never quite been able to pave over. Imploding The Mirage feels like just that: a reckoning with The Killers’ own identity, one that pushes beyond the facade and finds the beating heart at the centre of it all.
That beating heart is Flowers’ own, and whilst there’s a lot of familiarity at play, it’s his unblinking perspective that makes for a more intimate, confessional record. My Own Soul’s Warning introduces a listless narrator pushing against Rockwellian comforts in pursuit of some higher call, conjuring the winds of change and ushering the restless into an adventure. Dying Breed channels CAN, NEU! and a fear of failure, pushing back on that oft-rosy escapism with a lingering doubt: “What if we're not prepared for this? / What if we just can't find the trail?”
The two-and-fro of blind conviction and lingering fear returns throughout the record, but Dying Breed soon segues into Caution, an epic of escape and abandon that spins a tapestry of Hollywood dreams, boxing analogies, “pretty girls,” dead end towns and the Fourth of July. It’s almost a Flowers supercut, comprising entirely of familiar phrases and well-worn themes, but this is where he’s most comfortable: over fifteen years, the band has learned to tether their self-serious portraits to a soaring hook or two. Lindsey Buckingham, recently out of the job, shows up to double-down with a searingly sincere guitar solo.
The perspective so all-embracing, tracks that might’ve fallen as detours fold into Flowers’ inner conflict, asides and meditations built into the runaway frame. Fire in Bone, a funk-rock ode to restlessness, failure and open arms, toys with Biblical parables and Homeric odysseys; the lofty Running Towards A Place finds eternity, conviction and a voice in intimate love. It comes to a head-on When The Dreams Run Dry, which seems to finally work through the wanderlust that haunts every Killers protagonist, framing the glowing conclusion of their flight as… companionship itself. It’s an answer to the question that’s always been implied: ‘what happens when the road runs out?’
It’s hardly a radical take – “maybe the real dream was the friends we made along the way!” – but there’s a truth to the trope, and Brandon clearly believes in it. It adds up: the only way that The Killers could up the artistic ante was to lay on more cheese, and the only way they could justify more cheese was by packing it with more sincerity. Flowers knows where to find it, sourcing conviction from his wife, a frequent touchstone, and consulting with his late mother on Lightning Fields, a touching discussion staged amidst the towering set dressing. His feet stay firmly on the ground, even when his head pushes past cloud cover.
k.d. lang lends a voice to Flowers’ maternal ghost, that appearance making her the first woman to guest on a Killers record. Weyes Blood arrives not ten minutes later, her soft presence hitting with the heft of an overdue reckoning. It’s a step beyond the winking takedown of The Man, which seemed to suggest the very same maturation – a lyric like “USDA, certified lean” could never be played straight, but the band’s attempt to tackle the arrogant masculinity of their youth indulged that same quality. If that parody acknowledged those shortcomings, it retained them for comedic effect – on Imploding The Mirage, the fiction has already unravelled, and Flowers is looking to build another image of restless Americana.
This time around, it’s Flowers who’s the “timid Rockwellian boy,” his chance encounter with a rebellious woman – defiant, dangerous – that sees him push past his own barriers and ‘implode the mirage’ within his mind. It’s refreshing to see women given this much agency on a Killers record, where they’ve often fallen as muses, accomplices, and even homicide victims in exhaustive murder ballads. That “female component,” as he calls it, does something to reframe those familiar stories, achieving a new balance and bringing the striking romance of Imploding The Mirage to the fore. It’s a little more cerebral, a little more intimate, and a whole lot more exhilarating.
In that way, The Killers’ sixth record is more renewal than reinvention, and the mileage will probably come down to how much you subscribe to their brand of pop-rock theatrics. It’s momentarily goofy and sometimes cloying, but so are The Killers. It’s overblown and uncompromising, but again… it’s The Killers. It might get vaguely religious at points, but as is so often the case with this spectacle-ready faith, the traces of Mormonism blend with Flowers’ own pen, mighty with or without religious reference.
It’s a great time to recast that mould, in the midst of plague, upheaval, defiance and isolation. In the age of COVID, our sunset getaways feel more distant than ever, and in the midst of upheaval, our egalitarian visions are itching for a canvas. This one-two of helplessness and hardship makes Imploding The Mirage a bright spark of earnest hope, unbridled by cynicism, irony and overt self-awareness. The Killers remind us of the past, the songs point us to the future, and the present is little more than an opportunity waiting to be seized.
It’s nice to think that The Killers have something left to say, even if that something is largely the same as it’s always been. It’s backstreet bachelors and small-town girls painted in massive, vibrant strokes; the promises we’ve made, whether both kept and broken; the tiny details that let on towering universal truths. It’s been 16 years since The Killers met The Boss, but for all they’ve achieved in the decade-and-a-half since, it feels as though they’ve only just seen the Jungleland for the trees.
The Killers' new album, Imploding The Mirage, is out now through Island Records.
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