In a recent Rolling Stone interview, The Killers make the case for their first new album in five years, offering a series of quotes that could have hailed directly from a press release: “The best way to put it is that I wanted to inhabit my age, so it’s a snapshot—a true representation of where we’re at,” says singer Brandon Flowers, describing every single album ever made by anyone. That lack of any real direction or purpose colors all of Wonderful Wonderful, a record that, even by The Killers’ standards, boasts little depth beneath its glossy surface. While that slickness has yielded greatness in the past—“All These Things That I’ve Done” remains a hypnotically catchy emotional anthem, the same for “Mr. Brightside,” though it might have aged better if not for radio overplay—there’s nothing here to equal those moments.
Things get off to a rocky and pretentious start with the title track, which is led by a meant-to-be-inspiring horn call and tribal drumbeat—like U2 wandered over drunk from The Joshua Tree. The chorus addresses a “motherless child” with a series of annoyingly affected ancient pronouns (“Motherless child does thou believe / That thine afflictions have caused us to grieve?”) and a melody line heavily reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” kicking off a biblical theme that gets hammered on later.
Things dumb down almost instantly for first single “The Man,” reminiscent of the theme song for an ’80s action figure or a novelty cut that would get spun early in the evening at Studio 54 before the coke kicked in. Flowers’ frequent themes of jealousy or regret are tossed aside in favor of a string of lyrics created merely to express his “Man”-ness (“USDA certified lean”), all over a disco beat that’s not nearly catchy enough to overcome this level of stupidity.
The head-scratching continues with “Rut,” in which it sounds like Flowers is already apologizing for the album itself (“Don’t give up on me / ’Cause I’m in a rut”) with a treacly ballad that would fit perfectly onto a compilation of rom-com themes. In the course of singing about breaking free from monotony, Flowers repeats the phrase “and I’ll climb” 18 times in a row. Wonderful’s decidedly ’80s road detours into Flowers’ oft-visited Springsteen territory on the more effective “Life To Come,” where the strength of his considerable vocals triumphs over the measly synths they’re stacked upon, even as it still seems like he’s trying to get you to give the album a shot (“Have a little faith”).
For its middle run, Wonderful proves that at least a little faith is justified. “Run For Cover” delivers the kind of hooks that characterized the band’s earliest hits, but even it pales in comparison to “Tyson Vs. Douglas,” which finds its unlikely, powerful inspiration in a look back at the famous fight, an apparently formative experience for Flowers. Its command of lovely, lasting metaphors is so good that it only throws into stark relief the emptiness of its predecessors.
After a pair of sweet and savory, romantic yet forgettable odes (“Some Kind Of Love” and “Out Of My Mind”), The Killers pull out all the stops for “The Calling,” a twangy Western tragedy about a rural family living a life in which salvation is only a Good Book—or an eternity—away: “Brother, just lean into the light.” The song, which kicks off with a Bible verse reading from Woody Harrelson (sure, why not?), has the cinematic feel that The Killers evoke so well, in both their music and videos. Once again, it leaves you wishing that the band could have offered 10 more songs of similar caliber.
Maybe The Killers wish that, too. The album ends with “Have All The Songs Been Written?” (“I just need one to get through to you”), as poignant a depiction of the songwriting process as you’re likely to find, one that ruminates in various melodic machinations before falling into a frustrated build, perpetually looking for that perfect song. We’re all looking for it. On Wonderful Wonderful, The Killers almost come close to finding it, but too often get sidetracked. So that’s where they’re at.