Killing for Respect POP
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
“Sam’s Town,” the follow-up to the Killers’ much-fussed-about 2004 debut “Hot Fuss,” opens with a drum roll. With all the build-up that has preceded its arrival, this is appropriate. Instead of managing expectations, singer Brandon Flowers fed them, telling MTV the new album would be “one of the best albums in 20 years.” That it falls short of this improbable claim isn’t surprising; what is surprising is that the results aren’t laughable.
When the Killers were first signed to major label Island Records, their old-wave sound seemed to signal the dying gasp of the retro-rock craze. The consensus among my indie-rock-inclined friends was that the Killers were a second-rate version of the similarly synthy yet more indie-credible Omaha band the Faint, who refused to make the leap to a major.
The Killers, for their part, seemed all too eager for the job. Their fresh faces, dapper dress, and MTV-ready new wave songs — not to mention the hordes of attractive young fans that inevitably followed — only confirmed suspicions. They were easy to write off despite an annoyingly catchy first single, “Somebody Told Me,” with its memorable gender-bendy chorus, and an even better follow-up in “Mr. Brightside.”
“Sam’s Town” is a bid to be taken seriously.The Killers signed on producers Flood and Alan Moulder, who between them have worked with U2, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, and Smashing Pumpkins.They’ve toned down the synthesizers. They’ve even grown facial hair. (This is serious, indeed.) Their strategy for living up to their foolhardy claim? To mimic many of the best acts of the past 20 years, namely U2, Bruce Springsteen, Depeche Mode, and the Talking Heads.
The album gets off to a promising start. “Sam’s Town,” the title and opening track, follows the drum roll with cascading synth, dirty guitar, meaty bass, and photo-album lyrics delivered in a machine-gun staccato: “I still remember Grandma Dixie’s wake / I’ve never really known anyone to die before / red, white, and blue upon her birthday cake / my brother he was born on the Fourth of July.” It closes with a section of woozy carnival music.
“Enterlude” serves as a kind of second introduction. Over spare piano chords, Mr. Flowers invites the listener in with the flair of a seasoned (and slightly sinister) carnival barker: “We hope you enjoy your stay,” he sings with a light trill, “it’s good to have you with us, even if it’s just for the day.”All of this builds to “When You Were Young,” the first single, and the best song the band has written in its young career.
Or rather, assembled. The quasi-religious imagery and chiming guitar work recall mid-career U2. The lyrics are a parody of Springsteen-style mixed metaphor: “We’re burning down a highway skyline on the back of a hurricane that started turning when you were young,” Mr. Flowers sings. (Springsteen classics like “he rides headfirst into a hurricane and disappears into a point” don’t read a whole lot better on the page.)
Even the elaborate video is a carbon copy: With its grainy film stock and south-of-the-border setting, it owes a debt to Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.” Though the influences are thinly disguised, the whole thing holds together nicely.
But the Killers can’t sustain the momentum, partly because they try way too hard; every song seems to go for broke. Another, more troubling, problem is that the Killers’ talents aren’t well suited to the music of some of the heroes they imitate, particularly Springsteen. No amount of admiration (or studious imitation) of him can help the Killers pull off his blue-collar grit and crowded poetics. (They don’t call him the Boss for nothing.) The harder they try, the further short they fall.
“This River Is Wild” sounds a little like Springsteen, until it sounds way too much like him. “Now the cars are everywhere / base of dust at the fair ground / I don’t think I ever seen so many headlights,” Mr. Flowers drawls in his best Jersey accent over a lonesome piano at the end of the song, “but they’re something pulling me / the circus and the crew, well they’re just passing through / making sure Mary still goes around / but it’s a long, long, long way down.” Pick your reference. It’s practically a Springsteen Madlib.
Fortunately, the band is better suited to its other influences. The regrettably named “Bling (Confessions of a King)” is a good facsimile of “Achtung Baby”- era U2. Mr. Flowers even manages to pull off Bono’s grandiosity: “When I offer you survival / you say it’s hard enough to live,” he sings.
With its squiggly 64-bit video-game synth and quavering vocals, “For Reasons Unknown” is likewise a near-tribute to the Talking Heads. Mr. Flowers’s jittery voice is a dead ringer for David Byrne’s, but he’s unwilling to maintain Byrne’s ironic distance. “My heart, it don’t beat, it don’t beat the way it used to / and my eyes, they don’t see you no more,” he emotes all over the choruses.
Thankfully, one of the best songs on the album manages to avoid all such easy comparisons.”Bones” starts with a comically flat chorus and descending, pinging synth notes — a distant echo of some long forgotten new wave band. But it has a trick up its sleeve: big, show tune choruses flanked by Mexican wedding horns. It’s confident, thrilling, and most important, original.
The Killers certainly haven’t made one of the best albums in the last 20 years, but rather a survey of such albums. Still, they deserve credit for trying. And they’ve earned the right to be taken seriously.