Not many people know the best moment in their life. I know mine. 2013, Wembley Stadium, when The Killers played their first stadium concert.
As the sun set on 80,000 people on that sultry Saturday night, a show began long on emotion, short on patience, as Brandon Flowers, the band’s lead singer and frontman pulled out every stop for a gig that defined his career. After a mesmeric three hour performance he got in a taxi, drove to the Islington Garage Club and did it all again. That takes commitment.
Brandon Flowers is a curiously reclusive figure in a pop age that valorises the extrovert. He broke-through in 2003, first in the UK and later the US, with ‘Mr Brightside’. Since then he’s released four studio albums with The Killers, and two solo works. Worldwide he’s sold about 22 million albums, is described by Elton John as one of the most inspirational musicians of this century, and has performed before the British Royal family.
Oh, and The Killers’ charity Christmas singles have raised over $1 million dollars for the HIV charity RED. Actions speak louder than words and Flowers may shake before he appears on national television, but he’s a man as driven as he is creative.
Commercially Flowers is big. Culturally he is well known. Musically he is respected. But he has never received the status he deserves as a wordsmith in the Lennon-Jagger tradition. His songs are powerful, political and pertinent, transcending his Las Vegan heritage. They present a clarity of thought and certainty of value increasingly unusual in our post-truth world.
Hot Fuss was his electrifying debut, ‘Mr Brightside’ now a dance-floor classic of every club. Like everywhere. The indie soft rock, auto-tuned vocals, and missionary lyrics about ‘destiny’ were immediately popular. “I must have performed that song a thousand times and I still don’t get bored of it,” Flowers told Zane Lowe in 2013. Nor does any club DJ I’ve ever heard.
Sam’s Town, Hot Fuss’ 2006 sequel, was the album where Flowers truly found his voice. He wasn’t bashful about it either. The Nevadan claimed it was “one of the best albums in the past twenty years”, that it would be “the album that keeps rock & roll afloat.”
The critics disagreed, with Rolling Stone delivering a miserly two-star rating. It was a radical and, many argued, unnecessary departure from The Killers globally successful debut. But if you listen to Sam’s Town, and I mean really listen, you understand what Flowers is on about. It’s an American masquerade about hope, success and failure. “Nobody ever had a dream round here” is the framing-opening lyric from the title track, a nostalgic throw-back to Flower’s tragic youth surrounded by gambling addicts in a rundown suburb of Las Vegas.
Sam’s Town takes its name from the casino across the road from where Flowers grew up. The tracks together form a biographical narrative of self-reflection. ‘This River is Wild’ is a cry of the tribulations of faith, ‘Uncle Jonny’ about watching your best friend break down, ‘When You Were Young’ a classic Springsteenrock song about dating the wrong girl.The manifesto song for the album ‘Read my Mind,’ is Flowers’ essay on the American Dream. “I never really gave up on/ Breakin’ out of this two-star town/I got the green light/I got a little fight/ I’m gonna turn this thing around”—aspiration courses through the bridging-guitar crescendo. I could go on, but that’s beside the point.
Individually the songs are great to listen to, but the album succeeds because it coheres so perfectly. This is the antonym to beige pop, the kind of thing that should keep Ed Sheeran awake at night. Flowers writes soul music in the original meaning of the term. Biblical in its reach, epic in its subject matter, the lyrics resonate the harsh non-conformist value system of Flowers’ Nevadan upbringing. “Decades disappear like sinking ships/ God gives us hope,” Flowers shouts in ‘A Dustland Fairytale’, the raw emotion of self-denial trilling through the cadences of that bitter-sweet symphony. God and religion are present in much of Flowers writing, highly unusual in an age in which secularism is writ-large across pop culture.
More than a musical mastermind Flowers is an indie rock fashion icon, an old-school practitioner of Las Vegas haute-pop-couture. In an era of fashion neurosis on stage, where Harry Styles is feted for donning a blank t-shirt and Chris Martin’s rent-a-sticker guitar becomes a cultural symbol, Flowers remains stubbornly gaudy. America’s synthrock cowboy, he’s worn everything from a Dior feathered epaulette jacket to lavish quantities of eye mascara. Flowers remains a vigilant 80s New Romantic revivalist, an unashamedly ostentatious showman.
“I’ve gone through life white-knuckled…” Flowers opens ‘Flesh and Bone’ the breakout track of The Killers fourth album Battle Born. This is music with a diaristic quality, a haunting resonance and melodic variance so out of step with contemporary synth-pop. It’s music which echoes Flowers’ life story; about succeeding in the face of adversity and fighting for what you believe in.
Together his oeuvre forms a go-to lyric book replete with every mode of human emotion and experience. The man is a genius and it’s time he is recognised as such.