On the same night that Brandon Flowers headlined Terminal 5 in New York City, Billy Joel was playing the final show at Nassau Coliseum — or at least the last before a total overhaul of the venue — some 35 miles away. It was a nice bit of kismet. Both are tremendous pop craftsmen who don’t get a fraction of the critical respect they deserve (though Joel is getting there), and both have a fondness for mining and reconfiguring the past in their songs. For Joel, it’s greaser pop and doo-wop; for Flowers, it’s new wave and the sound of FM radio in the mid-Eighties. But where Joel, particularly in his later work, has a tendency to treat music like an app he’s idly fiddling with until his date shows up, Flowers has never seemed like anything less than a man on a mission. Charging onto the stage in a gold-lamé blazer to the giant saxophone exclamation points that open “Dreams Come True,” Flowers headed straight for the monitor at the lip of the stage, leapt on top of it, and proceeded to swivel his hips and crane his body down into a full Elvis pose. Flowers spent a lot of time atop that monitor in the 90 minutes that followed, a pop star gone Pentecostal preacher, delivering sermons that were 50 percent Scripture, 50 percent pulp novel, and 100 percent heart. When “Dreams” gave way to the weirdo Kate Bush synth tornado of “Can’t Deny My Love,” Flowers delivered the chorus — “You can run to the hillside/You can close your eyes/But you’re not gonna deny my love” — with a driving insistence. It wasn’t a suitor’s plea — it was a singer’s challenge.
All of that — the grandstanding, the pulpiness, the sense of importance — is, more or less, the exact thing that aggravates Flowers’s detractors. What they forget is that at its core, rock ‘n’ roll is a myth, and it requires people who believe fervently in that myth to keep it alive in cynical times. What makes Flowers irresistible is the way he fully commits to that myth, without a trace of smugness or silliness or irony. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, at a time when half-assed rock bands basically Tweet themselves into existence, we need Brandon Flowers on that wall, throwing his entire body into the kind of oversize rock ‘n’ roll dreams we’re all nonetheless in daily danger of outgrowing. You can write it off and you can criticize, but you can’t deny his love.
Which is all a long way of saying that Flowers’s show at Terminal 5 was essentially wall-to-wall euphoria, seventeen songs that were all chorus, each one bigger and more joyous than the last. Flowers favors songs with big, open vowel sounds, all the better for the audience to belt back at him. The “whoa-whoa-whoas” in “Magdalena” sounded like football chants. The rollicking “Diggin’ Up the Heart” — which is two parts Dire Straits, one part “Centerfield” — swooped and dipped like a wooden roller coaster, and the Orange Juice calypso “Still Want You” made good use of its circular refrain, that simple three-word declaration getting louder with each go-round.
Most of the material on Tuesday came from Flowers’s latest solo album, The Desired Effect, which is on the shortlist of 2015’s best pop records and eclipses — and arguably surpasses — any of his work with the Killers. The record is a deep dive into Eighties pop music, and so for verisimilitude, Flowers’s backing band seemed plucked straight from the early days of MTV: a pair of horn players, a trio of gospel singers, and a few classic-rock longhairs for good measure. And at the center of it all was Flowers, the master of ceremonies, gamely filling the space between the songs with finely honed repartee. Before the Killers’ “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” — here transformed into a dusty, downcast country song — he said, “I want you to listen closely to the lyrics of the next song. I’m going to ask you afterwards if the guy in the song is guilty or innocent.” When the song was over, he actually took a vote. He used a complicated illustration involving darts to describe writing “Diggin’ Up the Heart,” only to wrap up by saying, “I was aiming at A Place Beyond the Pines, but ended up hitting Raising Arizona.” And he explained that audience apathy led the band to ditch their tradition of playing a cover, and opted instead for a quiet and darkly beautiful version of the Killers’ “Read My Mind.”
That song is the perfect example of something that’s often overlooked about Flowers: His songs are built around a softly glowing emotional center. For all of his acuity with pop music iconography — highways, football games, one-horse towns — he’s never stronger than when he slows the machine down to address matters of the heart. Flowers is often accused of being an artless lyricist, but it’s in these songs that his plainspokenness is his greatest virtue. Because maybe you’re lonely or overworked or maybe you’re using all your energy to wrench yourself free from a tarpit of depression, and you don’t have the patience or the wherewithal to unpack some art student’s convoluted metaphor. All you want to do is exhale for once, put your arm around the person you love, and have a moment of catharsis when the man onstage sings, “If a landslide tumbles down today, I’m on your side. I’m on your side.” You can call that manipulative, but it’s only manipulation if the person who wrote it doesn’t believe it. Flowers does believe it — fervently, completely, and with every fiber of his being.
It was on this same note that the night ended, with a version of “Only the Young” that was more benediction than pop song. With the stage bathed in white light, against only the sound of a pipe organ, Flowers sang, “Have yourself another dream/Tonight, baby, we can start again.” It was a simple truth, but it landed with the solemnity of a prayer. It offers up the idea that rebirth and rejuvenation are a heartbeat away, and that belief — one thing Flowers has in ample supply — is all you need to get there. It’s a fairytale notion, to be sure. But it’s more comforting than “Only the Good Die Young.”