The word “subtle” has never been a part of Brandon Flowers’s vocabulary. He and his band the Killers performed ostentatious stadium rock anthems while on tiny stages in nondescript clubs. The band’s videos had them cavorting on a Russ Meyer-esque dustbowl setting and playing checkers with Eric Roberts on a set inspired by Moulin Rouge. Their highly successful debut Hot Fuss veered from one extreme to the other; on one hand, you had the shimmering pop perfection of “Mr. Brightside”, “Somebody Told Me”, and “Smile Like You Mean It”, but on the other, the effrontery of young master Flowers often got the best of him, as on the laughable “Indie Rock & Roll”, the limp “Andy You’re a Star”, and most famously, derailing the otherwise likeable “All the Things That I’ve Done” by brazenly declaring he had soul while accompanied by a gospel choir. Polished to a slick sheen and shamelessly mining the characteristics of ‘80s UK pop and crowd pleasing American arena rock, Hot Fuss was an album befitting a band that calls Las Vegas home, heavy on panache, but low on passion, and like tourists who give in to the alluring lights, the noise, and the letter X (as a dude named Flanders once said), audiences surrendered, and loved every tacky minute of it.
With Sam’s Town, Flowers has his sights set on something bigger, and with the help of ace producers Flood and Alan Moulder, is clearly bent on duplicating the same success of Born to Run and The Joshua Tree, but instead of sounding as profound as Bruce Springsteen and as beautifully grandiose as U2, it comes off as facile as Bon Jovi and as overblown as the Alarm. “I looked inside / Running through my veins / An American masquerade,” sings Flowers at one point, unknowingly, and accurately describing an ungodly mess of an album by a band that tries far too hard adopting a persona that doesn’t suit itself at all.
It cannot be understated just how good the Killers can be when they’re firing on all cylinders. “Mr. Brightside” was proof two years ago, and “When You Were Young” does the same today, milking Springsteen’s formula to near-overkill, but ingeniously averting disaster. Flowers abandons his Anglophile affectations of Hot Fuss in favor of a husky, quavering drawl, spewing ridiculous metaphors left and right (“We’re burnin’ down the highway skyline / On the back of a hurricane”), while adding string synths that echo the epic sweep of the E Street Band. If Dave Keuning’s dead-on solo melodies don’t hook you in, the glockenspiel does, and painfully obvious as everything is, it’s irresistible, and for three minutes and 40 seconds, we’re theirs, the song’s over-the-top desire to impress us far more charming than ingratiating.
Unfortunately, the Killers have yet to parlay the fleeting, superficial magic of their finest singles into a complete album, and Sam’s Town is so riddled with hackneyed clichés, pandering melodrama, and lazy songwriting, that we keep wondering just what gimmick Flowers will thrust upon us next in a desperate effort to hold our attention. The rousing title track quickly loses focus, degenerating first into a clunky sing-along, then a circus-like march, and finally a strings-filled outro, all in the final minute. “Uncle Johnny” tries to be profound, with Keuning attempting the same blues-inspired licks as the Edge on The Joshua Tree, but Flowers’s histrionics (apparently his uncle did cocaine to take away the pain) reduces the song to self-parody. “Enterlude” and “Exitlude” are pointless, self-indulgent bookends for a nonexistent concept album, and “Bones” is simply farcical, combining a cheap Morrissey parody, tacked-on Motown horns, and an inexplicable Broadway chorus with some truly asinine lyrics (“Don’t you wanna feel my bones on your bones?”).
Even the more tolerable tracks take sharp turns from the sublime to the ridiculous. The unfortunately titled “Bling (Confessions of a King)” is a decently executed U2 clone, but homage degenerates into fromage thanks to the uproarious line, “I get my glory in the desert rain / Watch it go…bling”, and not even Flowers’s resolute assurance that he’ll take it higher and higher (down to the wire, I might add) can dim the song’s unintentional hilarity. Whereas “When You Were Young” hits all the right notes, the same cannot be said for “This River is Wild”, Flowers’s Springsteen fixation going into overdrive, as clumsily written character sketches collide with overtly bombastic guitar riffs. “Why do I Keep Counting” would move at a stately gait in more restrained hands, but instead we’re assaulted by layer upon layer of vocal tracks, the caterwauling cries of, “Help me get down”, packing the emotional punch of a toddler throwing a fit in a cereal aisle.
Only does “Read My Mind” follow in the footsteps of Hot Fuss‘s best moments. A far better band when Keuning and Flowers tone down the guitars and singing, the Killers shine on the song, Flowers’s synth offsetting Keuning’s tasteful flourishes wonderfully. We’re fed hokum like, “Breakin’ out of this two-star town,” and, “The stars are blazing like rebel diamonds cut out of the sun,” but the tenderness conveyed by both Flowers and the band sells the sentiment especially well. Sadly, it’s the lone moment of clarity on a record staggeringly drunk on its own misguided ambitions. Like the lure of a master carnival barker, the Killers suck us in with a phenomenal lead single, but soon after we give in and pay the ten bucks, we see Sam’s Town for what it really is: a tantalizing façade, a few mild thrills, and in the end, the unmistakable, hollow feeling that we’ve been cheated.
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