The prospect of going solo after spending all your life in a band is a daunting one. As part of a group, you’ve got bandmates to lean on that will support you through every song and album and show. As we’ve seen time and time again though, there are plenty of personalities in a band and they don’t always lead to positive results. Bands break up because of clashes between members, and some of them are so difficult to work with they prefer the solo life. There’s also the solo side project, where a singer or guitarist (and on a rare occasion a drummer) breaks away from his or her bandmates for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s to explore a new sound the other band members aren’t comfortable with. Other times it makes the difference when some of the band wants time off for family or other issues and one person wants to keep going. But however they come about, solo projects are a normal part of everyday music, and they often reach varying degrees of success depending on if you’re Peter Gabriel or Franz Nicolay. Among higher profile bands recently, Radiohead’s Phil Selway just recently released his first solo effort, and Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker will put out a solo album in a couple weeks. This week though, The Killers’ Brandon Flowers takes the plunge, and he does so by returning to some old territory the rest of his bandmates left behind.
After the very new wave/synth-heavy pop vibe of The Killers’ debut album “Hot Fuss”, the band chose to channel their inner Bruce Springsteens and go all dustbowl Americana for their second record “Sam’s Town”. That was not the move fans expected nor wanted, and while sales of that sophmore effort remained strong, most made it known they were dissatisfied with the shift in direction. That explains the course correction and a moderate “return to form” on the band’s third album “Day & Age”. With the decision to go on a temporary hiatus for 2010, frontman Brandon Flowers apparently decided he was bored and wanted to make some music his bandmates might otherwise not agree to. In other words, he was desperate to return to “Sam’s Town”. Not only does Flowers’ solo debut “Flamingo” have a similar sonic feel to it, but both album titles are taken from famous Las Vegas casinos/hotels. Call them two sides of the same coin if you will, the only real difference between then and now are the players involved.
Given how mixed reaction was to “Sam’s Town”, you could probably expect fans of The Killers to have a pretty divided stance on “Flamingo” as well. The very first thing you should know about this solo album is that it’s an extremely adult affair. The Killers make music that’s got a bit of fun to it, lots of flash and showmanship just like the bright lights of the Las Vegas Strip. “Flamingo” moves more from the perspective of a man who’s lived his entire life amid all that crazy grandeur and is now extremely jaded and tired of it. There’s a myriad of gambling references, starting of course with opening track “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” and only expanding from there (especially see: “Jilted Lovers and Broken Hearts”). Additionally, there’s a number of spiritual elements as well referencing back to his upbringing in the Mormon faith, among other things. Above all else though, the tone of the album, from the soaring and anthemic choruses even through the minor ones, is extremely serious. There’s not a single moment where Flowers lightens up or gives a proverbial wink and a smile to the listener that indicates he’s enjoying himself. As a result, there’s nothing even close to a “Somebody Told Me” on “Flamingo”. There’s not even a “When You Were Young” here. The closest this record has to a hit is with the first single “Crossfire”, which actually will stick in your head if you listen to it enough times. The two tracks leading up to that song are actually not bad either, with “Was It Something I Said?” breaking out some oddball bouncy synth energy amidst the relative lethargy of what preceeded it and “Magdalena” throwing in some Spanish love story flavor for variety. Most everything else is surprisingly forgettable and bland, seeming content to just ride along the middle of the road without much thought to experimentation or even really catchy hooks. Not even the wonderful Jenny Lewis contributing guest vocals to a track like “Hard Enough” can move it above merely average. Sonically speaking, the songs mostly stick with a traditional band arrangement, which means guitars and drums, though as with “Sam’s Town” there’s synths that pop up on occasion.
When The Killers were first starting out and reached massive popularity in a matter of months, Brandon Flowers often exhibited strange behavior on stage, like he was barely able to keep things together out of pure nervousness. The guy barely spoke to the crowd and when he did the banter was awkward because he was so uncomfortable. In the last 6 years, he has grown significantly more acclimated with performing and is better than before. He still doesn’t quite have the charisma he should being in a band of The Killers’ caliber, but taking it one day at a time he might just rise to the occasion. Now touring solo (with a backing band of completely unremarkable musicians), Flowers holds the entire burden of each show entirely on his shoulders. Without legitimate bandmates to lean on in those awkward moments, some fans might be disappointed with the performance. Assuming he sticks to solely performing the songs on “Flamingo” as well, that could be a problem too. Why Flowers continues to believe he can pull a Springsteen and do an Americana-by-way-of-Las-Vegas thing is a mystery because it more or less failed the first time in the form of “Sam’s Town”. Of course if you liked that record there’s a decent chance you’ll like “Flamingo”. The minor success of a single like “Crossfire” seems to indicate there are some people out there still interested in hearing what Flowers can do on his own. If it sells well enough, Flowers will probably make more solo albums in between Killers records. Send him a message by either not buying “Flamingo” or perhaps just cherry picking a couple songs that strike your interest. Much like forest fires, only you can prevent another Brandon Flowers solo record. The Killers themselves may not have released anything truly worthwhile since “Hot Fuss”, but it’s become clear is that no matter what they’re doing together, chances are it’s better than what they’ll do apart.