Front cover of ‘The Desired Effect’
by Ed Biggs
As Pitchfork’s Jeremy Larson has already pointed out, it’s hard to get a handle on Brandon Flowers as a pop star precisely because so much of his career has involved playing at being a pop star. As lead singer of The Killers, he’s rummaged through the dressing-up box of music to be, variously: new-wave Brandon (Hot Fuss); Springsteen Brandon (Sam’s Town); glam Brandon (Day & Age); and Bono Brandon (Battle Born). The one opportunity he’s had to cut free on a solo project, 2010’s bland Flamingo, added absolutely nothing to his repertoire, a continuation of Sam’s Town by other means. And throughout all this, his lyrical themes have remained the same – teenage runaways, relationship turning points, lost souls searching for the American dream, his childhood. This time, can he show us who he really is? Otherwise, what’s the point of a solo career? For The Desired Effect, his second solo effort, he’s brought in the much sought-after Ariel Rechtshaid on production, the man responsible for the perfectly observed pop brilliance of guitar groups like Haim and Vampire Weekend, as well as more commercially focussed artists like Taylor Swift and Carly Rae Jepsen.
Rechtshaid has helped Flowers to make his most distinctive work since Day & Age. But only because, like that album, it takes its arbitrarily chosen sound – the overproduced and shiny end of ‘80s pop and drivetime rock – and hugely overemphasises all the surface elements of it. The gated drums, synth pads, piano and keyboard flourishes, guitar histrionics… all held together purely by its maker’s willpower. While it totally fails to explore deeper into the rich musical seams of that decade, it’s the most complete statement of Brandon Flowers as an artist in his own right of his career: a likeable, enthusiastic storyteller and picture-painter, if only because his lyrics are so silly and generic that you can project pretty much anything you want onto him.
The Desired Effect’s strongest moments happen when he goes for poise and (comparative) restraint). ‘Never Get You Right’, yet another tale of smalltown ambition and frustration, builds slowly towards a billowing drivetime climax, succeeding despite its hamfisted lyrics like “I’ll give you my opinion, it’s the only one I got / they’ll turn you into something whether you are it or not”. The peaceful, ‘90s Pet Shop Boys vibe of ‘I Can Change’ and ‘Still Want You’, both released as singles, achieve the balance between production and atmosphere that Flowers wants – his desired effect, if you will. Even the totally over-the-top arrangement of ‘Can’t Deny My Love’, featuring every clichéd ‘80s production trick in the book, is somehow likeable because of that heart-on-sleeve conviction.
But there’s quite a lot of moments that are handled awkwardly, where Flowers trips over himself lyrically in his eagerness to show you what musical outfits he happens to be wearing this time. Opener ‘Dreams Come True’, with its tacky, keyboard-preset trumpet sounds and pointless background singers, offers trinkets to distract you from a lack of structure and terrible couplets like “I’ll bite what turns you sour, baby / I’ve got miles per hour, lady”. The ludicrous AutoTune that interrupts the plastic soul of ‘Lonely Town’; the risible Springsteen / ELO pastiche of ‘Diggin’ Up The Heart’ (he just can’t resist having a go at a bit of desert rock!); all demonstrate Flowers’ tendency to shoot himself in the foot by going for maximalism, making the songs in question sound cluttered and clumsy.
It tells you everything you need to know about Flowers’ modus operandi that the refrain of ‘I Can Change’, which samples Bronski Beat’s ‘80s classic ‘Smalltown Boy’ and actually features Neil Tennant on backing vocals, is one of the few occasions we get a genuine expression of original emotion. You come away from the album with the impression that Flowers is only comfortable showing us his soul he can express it through the imagery and language of another. Like pretty much everything else Flowers has ever done, The Desired Effect is heroically flawed, with far too much emptiness beneath the artifice. But, just for once, you can detect a fleeting glimpse of the man himself through the hall of mirrors – a disconnected soul searching for a musical body. (5/10)
Listen to The Desired Effect here!
Tags: album, Ariel Rechtshaid, Brandon Flowers, Ed Biggs, review, The Desired Effect, The Killers
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