With the release of the Killers’ latest album, Day & Age, the obvious question is: will Flowers and company continue to chase the panoramic, mythic grandeur of Springsteen and U2, critics be damned?
Before the release of the Killers’ sophomore album, 2006’s Sam’s Town, Brandon Flowers predicted that it would be “one of the best albums of the last 20 years". For a band that left many feeling they had not earned their spurs before achieving superstardom, the comment was an irresistible invitation to pummel Flowers for artistic hubris. And many critics did just that, especially since Sam’s Town -- while containing some undeniable classics -- was an uneven affair, capturing the band juggling diverse influences, sometimes to awkward effect.
Flowers’ excitement, however, was understandable. He was under the spell of Springsteen and U2, and the band tried, quite obviously, to create the same epic intensity in the songs on Sam’s Town. The two “hits” from the album, “When You Were Young” and “Read My Mind”, succeeded in evoking that feeling of epiphany that the Boss and Bono specialize in, that feeling of transcendence that one only experiences in fleeting moments at Mass or when falling in love or, well, when drunk and loading up the jukebox.
And yet, Flowers was still faulted for mixing his metaphors and gushing like a schoolgirl and managing to sound only like the young Springsteen, the one who confused verbosity with profundity. But so what if, technically, you couldn’t burn down the highway skyline if you were riding on a body of water? That was a kick-ass tune! And can you really fault a guy for trying to share his epiphany with the masses? Saul of Tarsus did the same, and he was canonized.
So with the release of the Killers’ latest album, Day & Age, the obvious question is: will Flowers and company continue to chase the panoramic, mythic grandeur of Springsteen and U2, critics be damned? Or, having experienced the sting of critical backlash, will they play it safe and make a collection of those dance floor ditties they seem to churn out with ease?
The answer isn’t quite so easy. On the surface, the answer would seem to be that the Killers are retreating from their epic ambitions and heading for safer ground. Those the-whole-world-depends-on-this-moment lyrics are largely missing, as are those majestic climaxes and crescendos that were everywhere on Sam’s Town. Indeed, Day & Age is an album devoid of pomposity, both lyrically and sonically. That’s not to say the album doesn’t have its climactic moments -- the completely sublime “A Dustland Fairytale” has all of those qualities -- but they’re certainly fewer.
Flowers seems to concede as much in the first single from the album, “Human”. “Give my regards to soul and romance,” he sings, “They always did the best they could.” Is this an admission that all that lyrical loftiness was misguided? Or is this just a nonsense line, such as the lines “Are we human? / Or are we dancer?”, which, apparently, are a reference to Hunter S. Thompson?
To say, however, that Flowers and the Killers cowered artistically would not only be a complete mischaracterization, it would also miss the point entirely. The inescapable conclusion is this: Day & Age is the most consistent, confident album the Killers have created so far. While there are just as many influences floating through this album as there were on Hot Fuss and Sam’s Town, they have finally congealed into a unified whole.
To be sure, there are traces of Low-era Bowie, the Cure, the Talking Heads, the Jam, and even Roxy Music, but there aren’t any songs here that sound like painfully-calculated imitations of a specific band. Instead, three albums into their career, the Killers have finally digested their influences and settled into their own sound. So, if anything, this is the quartet’s boldest album, seeing them finally step out from behind their record collection and asserting themselves as a creative force.
While the Killers have always straddled the muddy line between a “dance” band and a “rock” band (the thin distinction warrants the quotation marks since rock music was always intended to be dance music), Day & Age definitely sees them leaning towards the former. In place of the acute intensity the band aimed for the last time around is groove, pulse, and –- dare it be said -– funk.
“Joy Ride”, for example, begins with a galloping bassline reminiscent of Roxy Music’s “The Space Between” before settling into a dance track that actually manages to sound soulful, thanks to some well-placed saxophone. Yes, saxophone –- and it appears throughout the album, such as on the opener “Losing Touch”, which also sounds like it emerged from that late '70s/early '80s period that was trying to combine the often competing ethos of disco, punk, and soul.
Elsewhere, it sounds like the boys have been listening to that rather vaporous genre known as world music. The most obvious proof of that is “I Can’t Stay”, the song that will, without doubt, elicit the most head scratches. If you’ve ever wondered what the Killers would sound like as the house band on a Carnival Cruise Line, this is your answer. Once the initial “WTF?” moment passes, the song is actually an enjoyable, breezy little ditty. Utterly disposable, yes, but that’s part of its charm.
The bulk of the album, though, sees the Killers doing what they do best: crafting new wave dance songs that sound like lost classics from the '80s. “Spaceman”, “Neon Tiger”, and “Human” are all worthy of a John Hughes soundtrack, had they been written 25 years earlier. Synthy, poppy, and often touching, they are all irresistible pop confections.
For those, however, who love the dreamy-eyed Brandon Flowers and yearn for those overpowering moments, don’t despair. Flowers just can’t help himself when it comes to certain themes, and on “A Dustland Fairytale” he crafts yet another tale of young suitor-as-Messiah, swooping down to rescue a naïve maiden, only to reveal later that, yes, he is nothing but a man with faults. Flowers sets the scene by describing a “slick chrome American prince” and a “blue jean serenade” before crying “'Moon River’, what did you do to me?” As the song reaches its emotional summit, it’s decades later and the couple is desperately trying to keep the fire alive: “Cinderella don’t you go to sleep… don’t you know the kingdom’s under siege?”
And this is what makes the Killers so endearing, despite all their faults as a band. Their affection for everything they pour into their music, from the million and one musical influences to the shameless lyrical homages to the awkward literary references, is so sincere it can’t help but be charming.
So yes, Brandon... we are dancer.