First comes the heavy, teasing punch and deep reverberations of brass, bass, saxophone. Then comes the beckoning hope of the opening line, delivered with desperation: “The highway was teasing me/With promises and visions of a country unseen/In a black limousine.” So begins “Dreams Come True,” the furious opener to Brandon Flowers’ “The Desired Effect,” released earlier this year. The album is Flowers’ second solo effort outside of his role as lead singer of The Killers, and its bright poppy fervor makes it the best music he has released to date.
The Killers’ last record was a torrid affair. “Battle Born,” released in 2012, had some magnificent songs, notably “Runaways” and “Miss Atomic Bomb.” These were arena-rock epics, full of massive, rising hooks with all the promise of the lonely road leading out into the desert night. But those two songs were buried deep among tracks that were barely mediocre. “Here With Me” and “Be Still,” with their plodding refrains and clichéd lyrics, count among the most notable culprits. “Battle Born” showed promise; it hinted at the Flowers’ abilities as a singer and songwriter, but the album amounted to nothing but disappointment.
Luckily for all concerned, Flowers’ new solo release moves beyond all that. In 2012 he was a rock star, holding alight the dying flame of the 1970s; now he is a pop star, striding boldly into the new era, his songs humming and pulsing with an infectious modern flair. Stepping aside from The Killers seems to have invigorated him with a tangible energy sorely missing from the band’s stultifying stadium ballads. Now he sings with a wry smile on his face, looking somehow younger than he did when he first broke onto the scene 10 years ago. He might as well be an entirely new artist, one who sees the power of pop music and has determined to use it to its greatest end.
The strongest song on the album, the one that best demonstrates the evolution of Brandon Flowers, is the closing track, “The Way It’s Always Been.” It opens with a quiet choir moaning over a slow, steady beat. “They closed down the Golden Sahara Hotel/Jessica says it won’t be long ’till they blow it all to hell,” Flowers sings, and in those two lines he locates himself within an entire tradition of decay and depression, stretching all the way back to the Delta blues singers who laid the foundations for this art.
The song builds, Flowers’ lyrics evoking a particular sense of fin-de-siècle melancholy. His lyrics shine here; they’re better than nearly any others he has ever written. An image here, a prayer there, a desperate plea: “A shift at the chemical plant, a white wedding dress/I wake up every morning and I wonder if I’m gonna pass the test.” Like the rest of the album, the song drips with the same American iconography that lies at the core of The Killer’s best work: football stands, rusting Chevrolet hulks and above all the temptation of the open road. All the while the percussion beats on and the accompaniment becomes layered; a trumpet appears from the background, and then a twinkling guitar emerges near the finale. God watches over it all, and the song ends flawlessly as it touches on universality: “Ain’t that the way it’s always been?/Sitting at the water’s edge waiting for the fog to clear/Tackle or touch, you sink or you swim/And hoping that He’s really got the power to save us from these sins.”
Songs like “The Way It’s Always Been” pepper the album and provide its most poignant moments. “Between Me and You,” with its tender evocation of unconditional affection, springs to mind, as does “Untangled Love,” the album’s penultimate track, a storming fury that begins with a bang and never lets up. This is pop music, but it’s rock ’n’ roll too, drawing on the cultural landmarks Flowers used to such great effect in Killers songs like “A Dustland Fairytale” and “When You Were Young.” What has changed from those earlier works is that those landmarks no longer weigh down the music. Now they are sources of freedom and liberation, and Flowers sounds all the better for it.
Because, at its core, rock ’n’ roll is about myth-making. More than a genre, it’s about creating and repeating the modern myths upon which the American psyche is constructed. This mission requires unquestioning belief among its proselytizers, who resemble fiery evangelical preachers more than they do traditional musicians schooled in the technical side of the art. Rock ’n’ roll singers, if they are to retain fidelity to their creed, must sing and perform with the deepest sincerity; irony has no place in the rock ’n’ roll project.
And Brandon Flowers is a distinctly unironic singer. One cannot doubt him when he sings — everything he says must be true; there seems no other option. Without this sincerity, this rejection of any shade of self-doubt, songs like “The Way It’s Always Been” or “Between Me and You” could never succeed. His fervent conviction to his practice makes this album a triumph. I doubt any other singer could have pulled this off — such is the captivating enigma that is Brandon Flowers.