I couldn’t make up my mind a couple years ago and the result was a tie for CD of the Year between Eels and Munly. It’s happened again, as 2012 presented us with two artists at the peak of their powers. So what’s your pleasure: apples or oranges?
Best CDs of 2012
The Killers: Battle Born
If we take how often I played it as the yardstick, then Battle Born was easily my favorite CD of 2012. I completely lost track of how many times I spun this one driving around, but I couldn’t help myself.
It has grown so unfashionable to be a rock star in the traditional mode (ie, the Golden Age of 1970s Classic Rock swagger – think Zep or The Stones) that bands simply don’t swing for the fences anymore. Instead of striving to make art that is larger than life, the mores of the era dictate intimacy and “keeping it real.” Frankly, this has hurt our musical culture. No, I’m not advocating for a parade of strutting, self-obsessed cockrockers, but there’s something to be said for an artist who aspires to greatness, to produce something timeless and legendary. Show me an artist without an ego and I’ll show you a bad artist, I’ve often said, and while that ego doesn’t necessarily need to manifest itself in a public life of debauchery and excess, I do like to hear an album with ambition, one that strives to be grand.
Battle Born is a CD with a dream. Grounded in a simple enough story – boy meets girl, boy gets girl pregnant, then things go to hell as reality sets in – the disc revolves around a narrative straight out of the Springsteen/Mellencamp School of Heartland Working Class Rock Opera. Take this, from “Runaways”:
We got engaged on a Friday night
I swore on the head of our unborn child that I could take care of the three of us
But I got the tendency to slip when the nights get wild.
It’s in my blood
She says she might just runaway somewhere else, some place good
Now, sift that ethos through the doomed nuclear generation romanticism of the ’80s and you have a fair approximation of the Battle Born gestalt. About the only things missing here are covers of “The River” and “Forever Young.”
It certainly helps that The Killers’ limitless ambition is matched by a remarkable gift for songcraft – no rock band is going any further than their songs take them, and here we have perhaps their strongest collection of tunes to date. These lyrics demand melodies and arrangements that evoke the simplicity and essential beauty of youth.
I remember driving
In my daddy’s car to the airfield
Blanket on the hood, backs against the windshield
The Killers may not be the biggest band in the world right now, but they’re damned sure working on it. They’ve always been obsessed with Born to Run, which is about as big a target as Rock has generated in the last 40 years, and their particular ear for how “Thunder Road” might be cross-pollenated with ’80s radio TechnoPop (Human League, Berlin, Alphaville) and Post-Punk (The Cure, Joy Division, Echo & the Bunnymen) yields a sound that evokes not one significant moment in our musical history, but two or three.
There’s plenty of room in the world for intimate, introspective Indie. It’s refreshing to hear that there’s also a taste out there for bands who long for the spotlights of the grand stage. For too many years that place in the American zeitgeist has been ceded to prefabricated corporate pop of the American Idol ilk, while real artists retreated deeper and deeper into their own navel-gazing.
Not everybody thinks that The Killers’s actual music is as substantively iconic as the pose they strike (AllMusic.com, linked above, gives Battle Born four stars, which is about a half star less than it deserves, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s review migrates from getting it…
The great open secret about the Killers is that they only make sense when they operate on a grand scale. Everything they do is outsized; their anthems are created for fathomless stadiums, a character quirk they’ve grown into over the years as they’ve gone from scrappy wannabes fighting their way out of Las Vegas to the international superstars they’ve longed to be.
…to a characterization of them as professional technicians:
They’re veterans at this game, a group who has been trading in these stylized, glamorized fusions for a decade, and that slightly weathered attitude is now part of the band’s appeal; they’re veterans that know how to use their tools, so even if the raw materials may not be quite as compelling as their earliest singles, the overall craft on Battle Born is more appealing. And if age has changed the Killers attack, it has done not a thing for Brandon Flowers as a lyricist, who remains committed to gobsmacking poetry and allusions, and cracked observations that somehow sound endearing when encased in the well-lubricated machinery of Battle Born.
In other words, he says, The Killers are craft, not art. Well, if I ever meet Erlewine I’ll buy him a beer and maybe we can talk about this. No, Brandon Flowers isn’t Yeats, and he’s not Cobain, either. But if you recast the songs from Battle Born as Punk or perhaps a grittier, less studio-savvy Indie and put them in the mouths of, say, Jack White, the critics would be flinging five star reviews around like confetti on New Year’s Eve.
I wish more artists would take the cue and aim higher.
Bob Mould: Silver Age
Some years back, Bob Mould decided he was going to issue one more sonic guitar blast – The Last Dog and Pony Show – and then he was going to go off and do other things, like Techno. Boy, am I glad he’s back.
Noisy and aggressive, Silver Age harkens back to the early 1990s, when Mould released three records with his Sugar power trio project: Copper Blue and File Under: Easy Listening (1992 and 1994, respectively) were five-star masterpieces, and sandwiched in the middle we got Beaster, a fun little filler EP comprising pissed-off outtakes from Copper Blue. Taken together, this three-year arc serves as a textbook case in how to execute raucous guitar-driven Power Pop (and here I use the term in The Who sense, not The Beatles sense).
It’s perhaps helpful to better understand Mould’s place in the American Alternative/Indie landscape, so try this. Start by going back and spending some time with his first band, Hüsker Dü – maybe Zen Arcade or New Day Rising. Then break out your old Grunge CDs and listen to them again. Got it? Okay, now listen to those three Sugar discs. Check out “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” and “Your Favorite Thing.” Next go listen to some Foo Fighters. Now, connect the dots. Mould rarely gets the credit he deserves for his influence on the last 25 years of music, but I promise you the artists you love know all about him.
So if I say that Silver Age could easily be treated as the fourth Sugar record, arriving after an 18-year hiatus, understand that praise doesn’t come much higher in these parts. And when I tell you that Mould is still angry after all these years, witness his take on the contemporary disposable corporate pop diva, which we get right out of the gate:
You had a chance to go around the world
But you had to be a silly bird
A revelation wouldn’t matter much to you
Silly bird, you bought a lousy dream
You took a number from the star machine
The star machine is spitting numbers out on you
You leave your family and some friends behind
It wasn’t long until you lost your mind
The star machine is doing fine but how are you?
You tell the world you had to fire the band
Your little world has gotten out of hand
The star machine will hand your ass right back to you
Then he has some words about his place in the pantheon. Are you listening, Jann Wenner?
Another live saint gonna take my place
You say a cheap prayer to my pretty face, yeah
You better pray for rain, yeah
Never too old to contain my rage
The silver age, the silver age
This is how I’m gonna spend my days
Gonna fight, gonna fuck, gonna feed
Gonna walk away
Stupid little kid wanna hate my game
I don’t need a spot in your hall of fame, no
What a fucking game, yo
I’m wiping my face of the shit you say
In the silver age I walk away singing
The silver age is calling out a melody
Silver Age devotes a good deal of energy to reflection, to rage and even to moments of raw regret. Oddly, I’m reminded of another angry young man who didn’t lose his edge as he aged. Graham Parker once put it this way:
The words come out
Not twist and shout
‘Cause that’s not what a grown man writes about
This is a mature CD, the work of a brilliant artist who has had plenty of time to ponder his life and legacy, and it’s clear that he’s not yet at peace with the world. The video for “The Descent,” which you can watch below, perhaps affords a clue or two as to what the future holds. In the meantime, Mould has, after a few years experimenting with other genres and stylistic approaches, circled back around to his greatest strengths, batteries recharged and empowered with a brutal honesty about both himself and the world he inhabits.