I can’t gush
enough about the packaging of Sam’s Town
. I don’t know whether it’s an attempt to appeal to serial downloaders or to small children, probably both, but it’s a really well put-together package. The edges of the case are rounded, baby-proofed, and the case itself locks shut with a small catch that invites you to “press to release.” The band members are pictured on the reverse side dressed, apparently, as professionals of the Old West: bassist Mark Stoermer seems to be impersonating an 1860s apothecary and singer Brandon Flowers adorns an ammunitions sash. Imagine my embarrassment when I glanced down and realised that, sans firepower, I was wearing the exact same outfit!
Speaking of, there’s an awkward passage in the director’s commentary on the classic 1974 Western satire Blazing Saddles
when Mel Brooks become temporarily wracked by guilt, recalling the participation of Frankie Laine in the recording of the film’s theme. Laine, while one of the most influential pop singers of all time, had in later times becoming known for singing a number of classic Western themes, including Rawhide
, and then Blazing Saddles
. Brooks is remorseful because, although Laine actually earned an Academy Award nomination for the recording, he never told the singer that the film was a comedy designed to satirise and challenge the myth of the traditional Western; Laine sang the song with such passion and sincerity that he can only have been humiliated when the picture became one of the most successful comedies of the time.
Without wishing to editorialise too much, the same goes for Bruce Springsteen. It seems to me, for all the On The Road
fantasies, left-wing rallies and factory-worker tales, nobody’s ever taken him quite as seriously as he does himself, and it leads an outsider like myself to conclude that, well, perhaps it’s all just a really lame gimmick. As such, the last person I’d expect to buy into it is Brandon Flowers, Anglophile and New Romantic revivalist who redefined the term ‘trendsetter’ in 2004 and 2005 with a record packed with eleven synth-pop singles delivered with the perfect mix of studiousness and irony (or was that twinkle in his eye just glitter?) Flowers has reinvented himself as a wannabe Bohemian, and he may even be trying harder than The Boss.
The Killers’ mega-platinum debut Hot Fuss
unwittingly paved the way for a flood of inferior synth pop pretenders. Now, with Sam’s Town
, it’s their turn to play the role of the follower. The most notable feature of Sam’s Town
is what’s missing: the new wave influence is less obvious, or at least less intentional. Flowers claims that the criticism Hot Fuss
garnered for being so “English” inspired to go and actually explore the best of American music. In the process, he fell in love with Born To Run
and the American Dream, and the uncertain optimism in Springsteen’s music is expressed clearly right through Sam’s Town
Gone are the pathetic characters and Morrissey-isms evoked regularly on Hot Fuss
and in their place (with varying degrees of success) are tales of redemption and of achievement- the type of subjects loved by people who live in mansions and travel the world in private jets and gondolas, I’m guessing. For instance, 'Read My Mind' sees Mr. Flowers proclaim: ”I never really gave up on getting out of this two-star town.”
On album highlight 'Why Do I Keep On Counting?' he expresses similar sentiments in a more cryptic fashion, posing the question: ”if I know my days are numbered, why do I keep on counting?”
Second single ‘Bones,’ on the other hand, benefits from exploring slightly more human subject matter in just as direct a fashion: "Don't you wanna feel my bones on your bones? It's only natural."
Musically, as well, the synthesiser is less prevalent and the funky guitar lines are ditched in favour of careful textures (bass drums are, thankfully, still in place). For this we can thank the other great practitioner of self-conscious, calculated Americana: U2. Put simply: if Hot Fuss
was the flip-side of the old adage of the “British playing American music and selling it back them,” then Sam’s Town
is the new, improved adage- “Americans playing the Irish playing Americans and selling it back to them and selling it back to them.” In other words, the Killers have done exactly what Simple Minds did twenty years ago, except it doesn’t count as selling out anymore.
Guitarist Dave Keuning is flawless in his role as The Edge, making liberal use of the delay pedal and oiling his singer’s underdeveloped vocal chords as he sings choruses in a voice that could almost be mistaken for Bono, before he lost all sense of subtlety. That’s not to say Brandon Flowers is a bad singer, his much-strained vocal is more affecting (to me) than Bono’s more comfortable example, and Flowers’ development of Springsteen’s shaky delivery is the closest thing to an original idea on this album; perversely, Brandon Flowers has once again achieved the impossible and made singing like he perpetually needs to put on a jacket before he becomes a snowman sound awesome
. Mood-setter 'enterlude' recalls Neil Young circa-After The Goldrush
, frail and uncertain, while the much similar 'exitlude' is sung with confidence and authority in a manner that recalls Lou Reed.
All this being said, the title track and lead single ‘When You Were Young’ could just as easily sit on Hot Fuss
as Sam’s Town
. The latter, in particularly, is a masterful fusion of the contrasting dynamics, rightly earning comparisons with ‘All The Things That I’ve Done,’ which I still consider one of the bravest singles since ‘Common People’ and destined for classic status; Brandon spews out lines like “we're burning down the highway skyline on the back of a hurricane”
with an authority that suggest they actually mean something against a guitar line reminiscent of Coldplay Kraftwerk-rip ‘Talk.’ The chorus line of ”he doesn’t look a thing like Jesus, but he talks like a gentleman”
is hair-raising in a way that Chris Martin has almost forgotten to do, and which Bono gave up on in the early ‘90s.
In some ways, Sam’s Town
falls in to the same trappings as Hot Fuss
did: sometimes it just sounds far too planned and calculated for a rock n’ roll album, exhibiting little of spontaneity of some of the acts they pay tribute to. On the other hand, the songwriting is far more consistent than its predecessor. There may not be as many potential hits on Sam’s Town
(in fact, I suspect ‘When You Were Young’ could be the only one), but it does represent somewhat of a diversification. Pop music is often very simplistic: if you can do two different styles convincingly, then you’ve pretty much made it. With Sam’s Town
, the Killers have produced a record very different from their debut without losing sight of the essential element that brought them success to begin with: great songwriting.