Even in an era that has produced very few big rock bands, The Killers are an anomaly. They’re one of the most commercially successful acts of the 21st century, but their music — a crafty mix of pop, heartland rock and new wave — doesn’t fit into any scene or genre, and their biggest hit by far, “Mr. Brightside,” is from 2004. They’re the most popular band to come from Las Vegas, yet they’re often grouped with the early ‘00s NYC scene of the Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Their albums contain incongruous flashes of Duran Duran and Bruce Springsteen in relatively equal measure, alongside hooks so gigantic that there’s an almost Weezer-ish sense of “are they being serious or ironic, or both?” In the pop landscape, The Killers are both an outlier and overwhelmingly normal.
The band’s secret weapon is its mixture of pop hooks and heartstring-tugging anthems — much of which is down to frontman Brandon Flowers, who, despite the group’s success, is one of the most underrated singers and songwriters working today (and who, as a Mormon family man who also happens to be a Vegas-reared international rock star, knows a thing or two about contrasts). Six albums in, it’s more his band than ever: Although they’re both officially still members, bassist Mark Stoermer and guitarist Dave Keuning have long been on “touring hiatus”; the former plays on about half of this album and the latter not at all. The core musicians here are Flowers and drummer Ronnie Vannucci with new coproducers Jonathan Rado (of L.A.-based duo Foxygen) and Shawn Everett, with the former co-writing most of the songs and playing on all of them.
Flowers is savvy enough to know that the line between familiarity and evolution is a fine one, so Killers albums have managed skillfully to navigate change while hewing to the group’s basic template. On “Mirage,” many of the familiar elements are present, from Flowers’ soaring tenor and rousing, triumphant choruses to the crystalline keyboards and surprisingly frequent glockenspiel that underpins them. The new-wave synthesizers that marked their early songs are back as well, but in a different guise: Now, it’s a vintage synthetic-string sound that was common on ‘80s songs by the likes of Dire Straits and Springsteen, but is also reminiscent of The Weeknd’s recent smash “Blinding Lights” and the last two albums by the War on Drugs. In fact, that band’s leader, Adam Granduciel, plays keyboards on one song here; kd lang, Lindsey Buckingham and Weyes Blood’s Natalie Mering also make cameos.
The songs themselves are vintage Killers, often beginning quietly but driving inexorably to those yearning, multi-layered choruses that Flowers does so well, perfect for singing emotively with an impassioned fist over the chest. The album’s 10 songs breeze by at a steady and efficient clip, never outstaying their welcome: It opens with the brash “My Own Soul’s Warning,” briefly downshifts for the beginning of “Dying Breed” before bursting into sonic widescreen panorama, and continues through the new wave bounce of “Caution” and the Springsteenisms of “Fire in Bone.” Boss-like themes of breaking free, weight lifted and throwing caution to the wind abound in the lyrics (“If I don’t get out of this town / I just might be the one who finally burns it down,” Flowers sings on “Caution”), and Vegas and the desert are an almost palpable presence in several songs.
Yet the big bang is saved for the penultimate track, “When the Dreams Run Dry,” which features a stunning coda that is one of the best things Flowers has ever written. He seems to know it, too, judging by the elaborate-even-by-Killers-standards arrangement around the cascading melody: It piles on celestial keyboards, a New Order-like pulsating synth, wailing slide guitars, a massed chorus and (of course) glockenspiel. The song leads smoothly into the closing title track, which concludes with another exhilarating chorus that is gracefully elaborated upon in a musical victory lap, with Flowers’ exuberant “Hey-yeah!”s underpinned by a sprightly keyboard hook — a sort of “See you next time!” exeunt, until the group returns in its next iteration, likely within the next three to five years.
“Imploding the Mirage”