PERMANENT RECORDS: DON'T GIVE THE GHOST UP, JUST CLENCH YOUR FIST; YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BY NOW, YOU WERE ON MY LIST
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
13. THE KILLERS - SAM'S TOWN (2006)
Personnel: Brandon Flowers, vocals, synthesizer; Dave Keuning, guitar; Mark Stoermer, bass; Ronnie Vannucci Jr., drums
Producers: Flood & Alan Moulder / Label: Island
In The Everlasting, there is a short bit where Lance Scott explains why he doesn't buy the standard cliché that bands screw up when they record their second album. It's a self-reflexive bit of business, with Lance being the second child and The Everlasting being my sophomore novel. It wasn't entirely intentional, though. A lot of it had to do with the choice of albums for him to talk about. It just fit.
The conventional wisdom is that success tends to spoil musicians. For their first record, they are hungry and record road-tested material that they sorted out in dingy backwater clubs while waiting for someone to tap them on the shoulder and give them the opportunity to put the tunes on tape. For the second album, they have expectations they are expected to meet, and they have to do it on deadline. Add to that increased resources and increased egos, and the press and fans alike sit back and sharpen their knives and wait for the group to blow it.
The Killers have taken two years to follow-up Hot Fuss, though it doesn't really feel that long because that album kept growing, expanding, churning out more hits and picking up more fans. It didn't feel to me like they disappeared for all that long. Even so, their new disc, Sam's Town, has a lot of eyes on it, something probably not helped by singer Brandon Flowers shooting off his mouth in the press. He's declared that Sam's Town will have a vast importance and reflect the sound of America. He's grown a ludicrous moustache and taken to wearing bolo ties and western shirts, like he's just gotten out of the basement at Big Pink and hasn't had time to clean himself up. It's like he's begging to trip over his own tongue and make a fool of himself. Unsurprisingly, a lot of early reviews of Sam's Town tear into the Killers for their audacity. Many of them are particularly running with Flowers' self-comparisons to Bruce Springsteen, and they are branding the album a failure. Rob Sheffield writes over at Rolling Stone, "All over Sam's Town, the Killers leave no pompous arena cliché untweaked in their quest to rewrite "Born to Run"... they seem like they're trying to make a big statement, except they have nothing to say - and who thought a band as shrewd as the Killers would fall into such an obvious trap?" The Pitchfork review of the first single spends two paragraphs straining in the same direction, never once acknowledging the irony of the most self-important critical venue in music taking Brandon Flowers to task for its self-importance, once again proving hipster irony ain't real irony.
Rob Sheffield and the rest are wrong. If anyone has fallen into a trap, it's the critics for digging back into their own bag of clichés, writing the expected in response to the unexpected, sticking the blade into the Killers' second effort just for the sake of it. Much of Sheffield's complaint is that Flowers and co. didn't do the exact same thing they did on Hot Fuss, and we all know that had the band made the sequel to that record, they'd have gotten kicked for not making Sam's Town. Really, I feel like these writers are just trying to show off how big their Springsteen collection is, and I'm not impressed. You're going to have to really put your back into it if you want to push the comparison all the way up that hill, because it's barely there. (And Sheffield, just where the hell do you hear Morrissey in "Bones"? Were you just desperate to squeeze the old reference point into the Killers' new shoes?)
Once the music starts, Brandon Flowers' boasts that Sam's Town is about America are pretty quickly backed up. The title is the name of a Vegas casino, but one must also assume it's a reference to Uncle Sam, and the song of the same name carries it forward, with lines about the Fourth of July, grandmothers, and the "American masquerade." As a lead track, it sets up the mood of the album perfectly. The new-wave glam of Hot Fuss is gone, replaced with heavier riffs. You can still dance to the songs, but they are chunkier. The guitars are louder, the keyboards are more layered. The title track's refrain of "I see London, I see Sam's Town," is the band straddling its two records, keeping its duel influences in the spotlight (and then "Enterlude" is the proper intro of the album).
Thematically, "Sam's Town" is about dreams gone wrong, about wanting to get away. It's a definite American feeling (and likely universal), of growing up in a small town and wanting to find something more, of having aspirations that are larger than where you are stuck. Throughout Sam's Town, there are images of movement, of riding shockwaves and hurricanes, while also standing against something. For every step forward our restless hero takes, something is waiting to push him back. (I'm thinking of the contentious metaphor of throwing rocks at a riptide in "Bling (Confessions of a King)." There is also a whole song called "This River Is Wild.") The single, "When You Were Young," lays the foundation. Its nostalgia for "the place where you used to live" is set off by tires tearing at the pavement as Flowers hits the road. "Can we climb this mountain? I don't know," he says, suggesting the fear of failure is not nearly as bad as sitting "there in your heartache" and hoping something will come along and rescue you. If that person "doesn't look a thing like Jesus," then there is no savior. Channeling imagery that sounds like it was taken from the Book of Brett Anderson, he declares, "We're burning up the highway skyline on the back of a hurricane." You have to be filled with a fire inside that can't be controlled to get out on your own and just do it.
There are a lot of references to the weather on Sam's Town, and the music rumbles with the untamed fury of a storm, guitars and synthesizers fighting it out, twisting up the air, tossing things around. Maybe that's where some of the Springsteen comes in, the grandiosity of "Born to Run," but Bruce didn't invent that any more than he did the need to do that running. If you really want to trace it back, the Killers owe as much to Phil Spector's Wall of Sound as to the Boss, and thus Bruce should maybe chip in some for Phil's bail, too.
What Sam's Town actually makes me think of is Suede's second album, Dog Man Star, a favorite around here at the confessional. After the onslaught of hype for their first record, a glam stomp that was just as infectious as Hot Fuss, Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler didn't so much retreat from the pressure of following-up their success as they did bend it to their needs. The dark, paranoid tales of broken movie stars and no-hope indie rockers didn't whinge about the perils of fame in a way that would alienate the not-so-famous listeners, but it oozed with a relatable failure and doubt. It was the sound of a band in peril somehow making their experience common to all. It's what excellent writers like Brandon Flowers, Brett Anderson, Morrissey, and even the Boss never forget: it's not really about them, it's bigger than that. Even when it's personal as hell.
That's what the Killers are doing here, taking their struggles as artists and transforming it back into songs about the American dream, about the common experience. What sets Sam's Town apart, though, is an impassioned defiance. On "Bling," for instance, there are the chants of taking it "higher and higher" and "down to the wire," of pulling off this game. (Bless the boys for not throwing "desire" into the mix along with "fire." I continue my ban on "fire/desire" rhymes.) Rather than lock themselves away in a gothic mansion and stalk the misty moors in Bryonically fluffy shirt sleeves, their going to break out and hit the road. That's where the American landscape comes in: the wide open spaces that inspire the countless Hollywood road movies. Get lost and find yourself. Listen to Sam's Town's best song (arguably), "Read My Mind," and you'll hear a classic tale of teenage romance and rebellion, a guy looking for a girl to understand him so that they can break out together. It's a nostalgic, 1950s beatnik poem:
"the good old days
the honest man
the restless heart
the promised land
the subtle kiss that no one sees...
the teenage queen
the loaded gun
the drop-dead dream
the chosen one
a southern drawl
a world at sea
the city wall and the trampoline
so I don't mind if you don't mind
because I don't shine if you don't shine."
It's a laundry list of adolescent yearning, and if we keep the fame angle, it's looking at what had been the promise of this sweet success in relation to what it really is, and the self-assurance that there is something beyond it more akin to what you've been looking for. Sam's Town is the bounce of that trampoline, of the Killers jumping over the wall and escaping the pigeon hole. It's why the music sounds so big. The Killers had to go larger. Brandon Flowers pushes his voice, too, a noble effort given how flat his singing style was on Hot Fuss. Try to do an old Killers song at karaoke, you'll discover you have to dump your foreknowledge of the melody because it's hard to sing as straight as Flowers does. He's not always up to the challenge here, but at least he's reaching for the notes rather than settling for the same old ones.
Sure, the hits aren't nearly as obvious as on Hot Fuss, where at least half of the songs became impossible-to-forget singles. At the same time, every song on Sam's Town is an anthem. The entire disc roars with a fist-pumping bravado. The beckoning, sensual chorus of "Bones" is just as rousing as the cock's crowing of "Bling" and the self-affirmation of "This River is Wild." "Bones" even has an awesome horn section. They sound like the Kick Horns, who helped Suede on "New Generation" and "Stay Together," but they've donned sequined suits and moved to Vegas.
Lest you think it's all macho posing, however, the penultimate song actually allows a sense of doubt to sneak it. "Why Do I Keep Counting?" is the humanity of Sam's Town. Amidst fears of his own failure and mortality ("if all our days are numbered, why do I keep counting?"), Flowers reveals why he was so intent on picking up that girl in "Read My Mind," why he wants to take her with him on his trip. He hints at it on "My List," where he suggests the helping hand is mutual. It's on "Why Do I Keep Counting?" that it really becomes clear, though. He needs the love of a good woman (or man, take your pick) to get past his obstacles. "There's a mountain waiting for me," Flowers says, taking us back to "When You Were Young" and its missing messiah, before asking, "Am I strong enough to be the one? Help me get down, I can make it...if I only knew the answer, I wouldn't be bothering you." Flowers sounds at his most passionate in this plea, letting his voice crack when reaching for high notes, stretching it as far as it can go. It's the right spot to finish, letting the world in and giving it everything he's got.
More reactions to the disc are sure to come, but right now, Rob Sheffield and the other naysayers just seem small-minded next to the raw guts of Sam's Town. The Killers could have easily played it safe and become their own cliché. Instead, I feel like the early response to their daring has exposed the timidity of this particular aspect of the listening public. Sometimes you have to wonder if rock critics have any idea what they want. If they are on a never-ending quest for the new themselves, why does everything they say sound exactly the same? But then, when we sit and write about music, we forget that important lesson noted above: it's not about us, no matter how desperately we want our byline to be remembered. It's bigger than this. It's about the music and listening and letting it change you rather than forcing it to change on your behalf.
NOTABLE B-SIDE: "Where the White Boys" dance is almost an anomaly, as its not very funky. You can dance to it, but it's darker, more slithery. You have to squint your eyes and leer at the dancefloor. You have to own it. Brandon Flower sings it as a seductive whisper, but it's threatening, too. The music gives the impression that wherever this place is, it's a dark area. It's a styish moment, a double pose. Very good.
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Current Soundtrack: 12 and Holding DVD commentary
Current Mood: curious
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich