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Watching Brandon Flowers play to only 700 people—as he did at Chelsea’s Highline Ballroom recently—is an unnerving experience. We’re used to seeing him flaunting feather shoulder pads or, at the very least, a bespoke suit while fronting the Killers at grand rock caverns like Madison Square Garden. But here, he was in jeans and an ill-fitting vest straight out of the Cherokee gift shop, leading a faceless band through songs from his solo debut, Flamingo. Thing is, Flowers isn’t built for clubs. When he peered into the middle distance at the Highline—neck veins popping, one foot propped up on a monitor—he wasn’t emoting into the heart of an arena. He was just looking past everyone.
When I tell him it was a little odd to see someone treat the Highline like the Garden over the phone a week later, he laughs impishly. “We moved our way up through clubs and theaters in New York, and always got so-so reactions,” he says of the Killers. “But when we got to the Garden, something just happened.” Echoing around hockey arenas, Flowers found his natural mode. Settling into a combination of Bono’s brassiness, Morrissey’s high drama, and Ian Curtis’s spasmodic awkwardness, the singer represents an endangered species in 2010: a genuine arena-ready rock-‘n’-roll deity who, at 29, isn’t yet on blood thinners.
After six years of new-wave-meets-classic-rock hits, the Killers decided to take a break. But Flowers kept going with Flamingo, a self-mythologizing, endearingly out-of-time album filled with songs that are both Killers-esque and also distinctly Killers lite. The Grammy-bait pedigree is rich. Producers include Brendan O’Brien (Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam) and Daniel Lanois (U2). There’s some slide guitar. Flowers cops a Dylan drawl at times. And there’s that song about a historic aboriginal American pilgrimage. Read: serious business. Though the record is more believably grown than his main band’s overblown 2006 Bruce ode Sam’s Town, it’s still a bit heartbreaking to see such a lovable peacock purposefully fading his colors.
On the topic of aging gracefully while retaining his rock panache, Flowers is frank: “I think that’s going to be something that’s really difficult for me, actually. I’m already guilty of reading reviews for this album, and people are saying it’s too adult, too smooth.” The practicing Mormon, husband, and father of two laughs a little. “But I don’t identify with angst. I was a very happy child. My parents stayed together. I was relatively unscathed. I don’t have a real edge. I’m not going to make new age music anytime soon, but I’m definitely embracing adulthood.”
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. In 2006, Flowers infamously relayed his feelings about emo acts like Fall Out Boy to the NME with the following: “There’s a creature inside me that wants to beat all those bands to death.” Now, on Flamingo closer “Swallow It,” he’s giving his loose lips a Deepak Chopra–style pep talk: “Think it through before you open your mouth to talk/Be an advocate of joy.” Talking about his formerly quotable self, Flowers sounds like an AA vet: “I used to have a big mouth, and it’s something I’ve been able to overcome.”
Flowers has promised a return with the Killers next year but, in the meantime, he’s trying to come to grips with the impending contradictions of thirtysomething rock stardom. He’s as cocksure as ever bellowing under bright lights, but decidedly less so when discussing his own place within the pop universe. “Even though it’s not as cool as it used to be, it still stings me that we still haven’t been on the cover of Rolling Stone,” he admits with resigned disappointment. He casually oscillates between chest-beating (“People are finally starting to recognize that we’re not going anywhere”) and caution (“I don’t anticipate ever being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame”), sometimes in the same breath: “I could keep writing great songs but, critically, it just isn’t happening.” Sometimes derided as an uncanny mimic, Flowers could very well be directing his growing pains onto a unique path. “I’ve always struggled with being a rock star,” he says. “I don’t know if I am one or not.”
Brandon Flowers plays Hammerstein Ballroom December 2