To be fair, the success of Brandon Flowers and co. has always relied on their sounding—and looking—a little other. On their chart-topping 2004 debut, Hot Fuss, the Vegas-based band seized on past trends like New Wave and glitzy ’70s/’80s glam rock, applying their own twist, and plenty of eyeliner. It was a surprise coup, but they established themselves as the “the” band of the mid 2000s and seemed poised to take over the music scene.
Then disaster struck in the form of 2006’s Sam’s Town. Sure, it sold a
ton of copies. Sure, it got a couple decent reviews (though mostly from
pubs who missed the Hot Fuss boat, and from Flowers himself). Sure,
“When You Were Young” is featured on Guitar Hero. But the heavy guitars
and Springsteen style rang false, even for a band that had built its
sound on the shoulders of giants.
On Day & Age, The Killers get a second chance to make the sophomore
album they should’ve made two years ago. And for the most part, that’s
what it sounds like: The dance-y, synth-heavy vibe is back, starting
with first single “Human.” It’s the kind of soaring tune that’ll have
you spinning on the floor at the club—atmospheric filler, perfect for
the band’s return to The O.C., if only it were still around.
But it’s not; and neither, for that matter, is pop innocence. In four
years, just as The O.C. has been replaced by the snarkier Gossip Girl,
OMG has become OMFG. The ingénue vibe won’t cut it anymore—not without
irony—and certainly not on a second try at a follow-up. That’s the core
of this musical melodrama: When Flowers belts out such disco-dipped
lines as “Are we human / Or are we dancer” as he does on “Human,” is he
embodying the height of ridiculousness, or does he have the best sense
of irony ever?
If, for argument’s sake, we go with irony, then that means a song like
“Spaceman”—a little ditty about an alien abduction that’s shaping up to
be single number two—is the band at its most brilliant. It’s a nifty
trick, both musically and narratively, to set a song in the great
beyond, automatically granting it greater importance. (David Bowie—Mr.
“Space Oddity” himself, and a huge Killers influence, did this first.)
This approach offers the chance to experiment with musical combinations
and slam the whole shebang home with a far-out breakdown.
But this doesn’t exactly play to the strengths of a band that is
typically so literal. “It started with a low light / Next thing I knew
they ripped me from my bed / And then they took my blood type / It left
a strange impression in my head,” Flowers sings to open the tune. And
when the climactic line is, “My global position systems are vocally
addressed / They say the Nile used to run from east to west / They say
the Nile used to run from east to west,” it makes the song both weirder
(taking place not in another dimension but in Flowers’ head) and more
conventional (complete with big breakdown line, repeated for good
measure). “Neon Tiger”—another song The Killers have taken for
a spin during recent shows—also has the feel of magical realism. For
most singers, it’d be pretty hard to hit lines like “Give me rolling
hills / Tonight could be the night I stand among a thousand thrills” in
the character of a giant cat, not to mention singing it with as much
gusto and gravitas as Flowers does, unless there’s at least a slight
wink-wink, nudge-nudge in there somewhere. But for the Killers
frontman, there’s not.
Not if you’re listening to the album the way the band wants you to—as a
collection of melodies that produce neither a slice of the zeitgeist or
a coherent story, but a feeling. Which raises the question: In an
allegedly “post” society (post-racial, post-feminist), can rock ’n’
roll—a genre that’s always relied on knee-jerk reactions to what’s come
Brit who recently had a hit with Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance
Floor—helps them out. Besides the classic Killers accoutrements
(keyboard and synth), there’s now saxophone (most notably on “Joy Ride”
and album opener “Losing Touch”), Afrobeats (“This Is Your Life”) and
steel drums (“I Can’t Stay”). It’s not so much an effort to defy
categorization as an effort to be categorized, once again, as
“other”—other than their contemporaries, other than their first two
efforts. Other than you, most likely, want them to be. And it’s a hope,
we can assume (based on Flowers’ healthy ego), that other equals better.
The album’s first four songs play well into each other, as good en
masse as they are as singles—an increasingly rare feat in the iTunes
age. When “A Dustland Fairytale” comes around, the momentum slows a bit
and the album starts to enter the danger zone. The Killers aren’t
afraid of big, and they’ve never met a weather metaphor or a devil
reference they didn’t like. And, yes, parts of this album are just
plain bizarre. Day & Age isn’t as genius as Hot Fuss, but it has
enough merits to keep its makers hit-makers, albeit odd ones.
It’s this experimentation that keeps The Killers fresh, setting them
apart from the crowd. They may occasionally miss the mark—this album
will take a few listens before it’ll get your party started—but, in the
end, listeners’ tolerance thresholds for the unexpected will determine
who cuts out early and who makes it ’til last call.