Review Summary: Hot Fuss minus filler and British affectation, plus Americana and more consistent songwriting equals a great record from the band destined to be our U2 - for better or worse.
I won't pretend to know much about Americana, Las Vegas, or burning/blowing/falling/turning hills/clouds/hurricanes/rivers, but I do know pop music. I’m the farthest thing from a Springsteenphile but I know New Order like the back of my hand. In many senses, I equate with the Hot Fuss
-era Brandon Flowers – my musical taste inevitably revolves around British pop music, whether it’s the Beatles, the Smiths or the Spice Girls. In general, American music lacks the wit and self-effacement of its British counterpart; too often artists fail to see the humour in depravity, the style in tawdriness, the absurdity in taking oneself too seriously. For their part, Brits don’t recognise the importance of songs about highways. Consequently, the two most significant cultures in the world continue to operate in separate spheres. A group like the Arctic Monkeys or Oasis is distinctly British
, and an artist like Bob Dylan is American through and through. Girls Aloud will never work in America, nor will Toby Keith ever conquer England.
Still, in a world of globalisation, transatlantic cultural overlap is inevitable. The Beatles and Elvis Presley, Elvis Costello and Blondie, Franz Ferdinand and the Killers –they all rose to considerable fame and renown outside of their home country coincidingly. Of course, the Beatles were just copying Americans like Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran, just as the Killers imitated British artists like Duran Duran, New Order and (thematically) the Smiths on their debut. The Killers were praised for their levity and gaudiness, but also the beyond-tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating affectation of Flowers – all traits that are as British as Anglicanism. Understandably, the group was regarded much more fondly in England than in America; while “Somebody Told Me” and “Mr. Brightside” were substantial hits states-side, it wasn’t until the release of the third single “All These Things That I’ve Done” that the band was given any considerable respect or attention. The Killers revitalised and updated a genre that never really caught on in America, outside of singles, and made it hip. After developing an image, sound, and style that worked on both sides of the Atlantic on only their first record, what else was there to do? Why, throw it all out of the window. British pretension is so
2004. Flowers and co. digested some Springsteen records, holed up in a Vegas studio (appropriately nestled in a casino), and declared their efforts the greatest thing this side of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”.
Ditching glitter, hot pink jackets and lip gloss for bolo ties, snakeskin blazers and Colonel Sanders facial hair, thematically Sam’s Town
seems intent to introduce us to America, land of the gimmick, in place of a Lonely Planet
guidebook. The title Sam’s Town
is itself a good indication of what lays ahead on the record. Named after a seedy casino in a seedy section of the seediest town in America, Sam’s Town
shows the “real world” laying beneath the glitz, glamour and gluttony that is Las Vegas (and America). Think of Hot Fuss
as the Las Vegas Strip, the fun and frivolous lap dance your wife doesn’t ever need to know about. But beneath is another world. The Killers would like to introduce us to this world, the “land of the free ride”. But no, it doesn’t mean we’ll get a view into the imbalance of American life, the struggles of a working class existence, the hollowness of a fabricated tourist town. No, we get to hear about deserts
. Red, white, and blue? Check. Four of July? Check. Wind, highways, mountains, rain? Check. Yet these keywords are as much a part of the American myth lexicon as meritocracy, liberty, equality and so on, and none really affect day-to-day life of Americans or others. So at the end of the day, it’s as much a pretense as Hot Fuss
, only with less dancing and ambisexuality and more twaddle about elements. The nonsensical nature metaphors don't lend well to relatability, but if you're searching for enlightenment by way of a Killers record you deserve what confusion you get.
As an album it bests Hot Fuss emphatically. While it may not have the instantly memorable singles like "Mr. Brightside" and "All These Things I Have Done", as a whole it is consistent and the heights of "Bones", "When You Were Young", "The River Is Wild" and several others combine for a much more memorable effort than Hot Fuss
. The album opener and title track sets the stage even more so than the “introduction” of “Enterlude”, and by the time Flowers declares, “I see London, I see Sam’s Town
”, the thematic separation between the British-influenced Hot Fuss
and this record are clear, but musically it is tough to buy. No matter how much they’d like to assert their new-found American identity, with each warble of the synthesiser, the line between influences blurs further. “When You Were Young” has received ample airplay, and rightly so, but the song is the sole clear hit on the record. Perhaps because it is the one which would be most at home on Hot Fuss
, with a guitar hook not far divorced from that of “All These Things” and lyrics which, at the very least, improve upon the “shut up, shut up
” refrain of “Andy, You’re a Star”.
But even if they’re not surefire radio hits, the remaining songs are strong, something Hot Fuss
can’t claim past the fifth track (when was the last time you had an urge to listen to “Believe Me Natalie”?). “For Reasons Unknown” and “Read My Mind” have relatively weak verses, but the choruses shine. Admittedly, verses are not the strong point of the Killers, especially as this is where lyrics are generally the focal point, and Flowers has little writing prowess. “Uncle Johnny” is reminiscent of “Andy, You’re a Star”, and “My List” is heavily reminiscent of something I can’t place, but it probably sucks.
Aside from the definitive hit in “When You Were Young”, other highlight songs are second single “Bones”, which thrives in its absurd frivolity (“don’t you want to feel my bones on your bones? It’s only natural”
) and the giddy brass-backed chorus with which I can’t help making Wham! comparisons. “Bling (Confession of a King)” has the dumbest title this side of “Glamorous Indie Rock and Roll” but propelling bass powerfully directs the song, and overall “it’s not so bad
”. “This River is Wild” takes the nature themes a little further than anyone needs to hear, and the chorus borrows a little too heavy from Morrissey’s “Wide to Receive”, where he croons “I don’t get along with myself, and I’m not too keen on anyone else
”, (and Flowers comes up with “should I just get along with myself? I never did get along with everybody else
”), but melodically the song is rendered one of the best on the record.
Ultimately, whether the musical growth is attributed to excessive U2 and Springsteen aping, or just natural progression from a young band on the up, is worth extended consideration. It is both disposable pop and anthemic stadium rock (which is euphemistic for disposable pop by blowhards, truth be told), but regardless of what label you'd apply to Sam's Town (and thus how you'd approach the record), it deserves to be classified as a "good" record, at the very minimum. Like many new pop releases its concept irks me, both in theme and execution, but the music leaves little to be desired. In a sense, Hot Fuss
might have been The Joshua Tree
of our generation, in its lopsidedness, its anthemic tendencies and its howling egotistical lead singer. What then, to make of Sam's Town?
Though it's too early to draw final conclusions, the Killers can rest safely knowing it isn't their Pop
, regardless of what masochistic critics might like you to believe.