In Brief: I’ll give ’em a C plus for putting a big silly smile on my face about half the time. It sure as hell beats Sam’s Town.
The Killers have managed a monumental achievement with their newest album, Day & Age. That achievement isn’t the kind of thing a critic would normally rave about, such as a lyrical masterpiece or a tour de force of musical talent, or the complete reinvention of a stagnant genre. No, it’s something much simpler than that. I’m impressed with this oddball retro rock band for actually getting me to listen to their third album at all, coming on the heels of the unmitigated disaster that was their sophomore outing, Sam’s Town. The more I listened to that record, the more I hated it. It took all of the guilty but effective pleasures that made their debut Hot Fuss work for me, and flushed them down the toilet in its attempts to be epic and historic and Bruce Springsteen-ic. For an album on my “Morbidly Anticipating” list such as Day & Age, coming out even barely beyond average is an achievement.
Now I’m not really sure what’s all that different about Day & Age, to tell you the truth. When it works, it generally does so by reusing the same tricks from Hot Fuss – employing rubbery bass lines and campy synthesizers to support Brandon Flowers‘ histrionic and sometimes off-key wailing about whatever existential subjects have him doing his over-the-top Bono-meets-Fred Schneider impression to the tune of vaguely new-wave era rock. Throw in a few new tricks – most notably the use of horns to spice up a couple tracks – and you get an album that’s almost as solid as their debut. That doesn’t sound like much of a compliment, but I’ll take what I can get from these guys.
There are times when I wonder if part of The Killers’ appeal lies in their apparent obliviousness to how goofy and over-the-top their music sounds. Even if you’re secure enough to deal with whatever ridicule you might attract by admitting that you find no guilt in the pleasure of their decadent 80’s revionism, it still takes a lot of gumption to actually claim that the band’s lyrics are meaningful to you in some way. That ain’t for lack of trying on the band’s part, because Day & Age is positively stuffed to the brim with fairytales that want to be epic and ruminations on the human condition that want to be profound. More often than not they come across as cliched, and yet there’s enough of an oddball slant to the lyrics that it’s not 100% predictable. It’s like a nod to a fragment of pop culture long forgotten. If they’re aware of their own ability to be cool by being uncool, then kudos to The Killers for sticking with their guns. If not, then well, they’re more enjoyable to listen to than most bands that I like to make fun of.
1. Losing Touch
Console me in my darkest hour
Convince me that the truth is always grey
Caress me in your velvet chair
Conceal me from the ghost you cast away…
My first thought upon hearing this opening track was that if this was The Killer’s attempt to return to the snappy synth-pop of their debut, they must have not realized that it sounded an awful lot like they were running through molasses. There’s a dark, angular, dangerous feeling to this song with its cold, glassy synthesizers and its stabbing horn section – it feels unsettlingly off-key but it really just has a strange melody, which I enjoy, but the careful way it’s played makes it feel like the band’s lacking a little zest. I suppose it makes sense to be maudlin when you’re lamenting the greying of your own sense of morality, as Brandon Flowers appears to be doing here. Part of him wants to be coddled and convinced that it’s OK to just do whatever feels good, and part of him seems to be wrestling with guilt, and he seems resigned to just let whatever happen as a result of it, even if that makes people think he’s going a bit looney. Something like that. It could be stronger, but it works well enough as a radio single. (Side note: Why does nearly every rock band that hires a horn section for one of their songs seem to think it’s cool to have the song end with one or two of the horn players randomly blurting away as if they didn’t realize they were still being recorded? That’s right up there on the list of rock cliches with “The rootsy acoustic song that ends with everyone in the studio applauding themselves.” It was amusing the first ten times I heard it. Now cut it out.)
Pay my respects to grace and virtue
Send my condolences to good
Hear my regards to soul and romance
They always did the best they could…
Speaking of singles, this one was The Killer’s big bid to recapture our attention last fall, playing up the programmed, retro-pop, Pet Shop Boys-inspired side of their sound and dropping the rootsier aspirations that plagued Sam’s Town. It would have worked for me, because this is pretty much the most stupidly catchy song EVER, but then, I’m a stickler for lyrics, hence the “stupidly” part of the equation. It’s not enough that Flowers has to spend the entire track getting all faux-religiously melodramatic as he laments the human condition itself. Singing an ode to the dying moral fiber of society is silly enough coming from this band. But no, he had to top it by making sure that the most prominent line of the chorus was one of those things that would spark endless Internet debates about what exactly was being sung. In it, he dares to ask the seemingly grammatically challenged question, “Are we human… or are we dancer?” Yep, you heard that right. Stop trying to hand-wave and tell me it’s denser. It’s dancer. The singular. The “s” was left off intentionally. Why? See, this is where The Killers get all literary on your hiney. They’re quoting Hunter Thompson, a journalist who just so happens to be the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. (The title of which accurately describes a few Killers songs, but that’s beside the point.) The intent of the quote is to ask whether we’ve turned into a race of people who just want to be entertained. The word “dancer” denotes a species. Wikipedia tells me it’s a “mass noun” or some such business – so it’s grammatically correct in the same sense that the sentence “Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo” is grammatically correct. (I’m serious. Go look it up.) So I get the meaning and I have no intellectual grounds to criticize the song… but that one missing letter still annoys me to no end. That said, I’m finally starting to make my peace with this song – a good performance is definitely given by all, with the glittery synths and the funky looping guitar riff and the simple but effective dance beat locking together to make the song one of the year’s biggest earworms. That’s how The Killers work – even when they overreach in embarrassing ways, it’s still difficult to get their songs out of your head.
You know that I was hoping
That I could leave this star-crossed world behind
But when they cut me open
I guess I changed my mind…
Now here’s a song that doesn’t mind being big and loud and goofy. It steps up the tempo and lays on the synthpop even thicker, and Flowers gets all happy-go-lucky about an alien abduction. Now I’ve heard alternative rock bands get all cheeky and sing about this stuff before, and let’s be fair, this song is no “Subterranean Homesick Alien”. But it doesn’t pretend to be that, or really to be anything important at all. It’s catchy nonsense with a wry sense of humor one minute and total non-sequiturs the next (how else does one explain the business about the Nile running from east to west, or the “storm maker” and “dream maker” who pop up in the chorus?) I can accept this for what it is with no hesitation. It might just be my favorite track on the album, because having fun in a way that makes no sense whatsoever is really what The Killers were born to do. (Depending on your point of view, this song is apparently either an homage to, a ripoff of, or a complete insult lobbed at David Bowie.)
4. Joy Ride
It’s getting close to sundown over the Sierra
Stranded on the freeway, burning with desire
She was on the sidewalk, looking for a night light
We talked about the real things, and drove into the fire…
This might be the album’s biggest “guilty pleasure” track. We’re three for three on big, fun, happy dance tracks now, and this one seems to want to soothe our economic woes by telling us that there’s no better cure for being down on your luck than taking a road trip with the top down and the radio blasting and the wind in your hair and a prostitute in the passenger seat. SCREEEEEECH! Say WHAT now? Um, yeah. It’s about picking up a girl on the street corner and stopping off at one of those low-rent motels where the neon sign is flickering in and out while flies buzz around it, and I really don’t even want to know what happens next. Let’s just concentrate on the celebratory road-trip aspect of it, shall we? I mean, who can deny that Mark Stoermer came up with just about the bounciest bass lick ever, or that the bridge of this song is just screaming for a sexy saxophone solo? (Which it gets. They spared no expense, I tell you.) I know it sounds like I’m being sarcastic, but I do honestly love this song despite how utterly stupid it is. Of course, I only admit to stuff like this on the Internet. It feels somehow safer.
5. A Dustland Fairytale
Saw Cinderella in a party dress
But she was looking for a nightgown
I saw the devil wrapping up his hands
He’s getting ready for the showdown…
Uh-oh. I should have known that once Brandon’s little joyride took us beyond the glistening lights of the Las Vegas Strip, and once the inevitable morning came after and we had to bear witness to the awkwardness of his waking up beside whats-her-name and realizing he was out somewhere in the Boonies with nothing to do for the rest of the weekend, we’d have to leave the shiny dancey stuff behind and get all serious and get painful flashbacks to Sam’s Town. He’s just got one of those voices that sounds fine fronting big, silly pop songs, but slow down the tempo and make the instrumentation more sparse and suddenly I just simply do not care what he is singing about. This might be an important love story, for all I know. But it sounds painfully plain until the thundering drums pick up at the song’s chorus and the song finally finds its momentum. And even then Brandon’s back to his old habit of bellowing slightly off-key. Nice try, but you guys haven’t cut a good power ballad since “All These Things that I’ve Done”.
6. This Is Your Life
Crooked wheels keep tuning, children, are you learning
Acclimatize, but don’t you lose the plot
A history of blisters, your brothers and your sisters
Somewhere in the pages we forgot…
This is gonna sound really weird, but I’m getting the strangest flashbacks to U2‘s song “The Refugee” when I hear this one. That was not the finest hour in U2’s history due to its odd attempt at building a song around some sort of goofy war chant, and while the “chant” that seems to make up the backbone of this song is a little more well-mannered and less aggressive, it also feels like something lifted from one of those straight-to-video sequels to The Lion King or something. I’m not even sure if that totally describes it, but The Killers are more entertaining when I use my imagination, so I’ll go with it. You can guess from the title that Brandon’s back to yelping about life, the universe, and everything, and he does so with a series of tepid rhymes and platitudes. I’ll give Stoermer a few more points for another solid bassline and Dave Keuning similar credit for following suit on the guitar. This band has such a solid rhythmic backbone that I can’t help but hope they pull an Audioslave or a Velvet Revolver or an Alter Bridge one of those days (which basically means everyone else in the band doing a “side project” with a different singer).
7. I Can’t Stay
There is a majesty at my doorstep
There is a little boy in her arms
Now we’ll parade around without game plans
Obligations or alarm…
This might just be the most unusual song in The Killer’s repertoire so far (and believe me, they’ve thrown us some curveballs), but darn it, it just so happens to be one of my favorites. Here the band takes a real chance, allowing the bass to lead off and then bringing in a skipping acoustic guitar rhythm, which thankfully bypasses all possible “folksy” or “rootsy” uses of the acoustic guitar, and jumps directly into “Holiday in the Caribbean” mode, complete with maracas and marimbas and whatever the hell those instruments are that you’d expect to hear while tourists get off a plane somewhere in Jamaica. It’s got just about the oddest melody ever, turning up where you’d expect it to go down and vice versa. It’s a total change of landscape for The Killers, with another spiffy saxophone solo and Stoermer’s strong bass line to provide touchstones to the sound of any other song on this album. It appears to be about a vacation fling that Brandon or the protagonist of his song ended up having, and the guilt that this person feels upon returning later to find that his one night stand is now his baby mama. Complicated, eh?
8. Neon Tiger
I don’t wanna be kept, I don’t wanna be caged
I don’t wanna be damned, oh hell
I don’t wanna be broke, I don’t wanna be saved
I don’t wanna be SOL…
OK, so now I’m gonna tell you what little I know about Duran Duran. Anything that sounds like glitzy and slightly trashy synthpop from the 80’s and that just so happens to make reference to tigers reminds me of them. That’s it! Therefore, in the mind of this ignoramus critic who was too young to experience the real 80’s when they actually happened, this reminds me of Duran Duran. (Or was it Depeche Mode? Crap, I can never remember.) That my not be a terribly helpful comparison to someone who actually knows their 80’s music, so let’s just call it a mid-tempo, bass-heavy song that seems to want to push its heavy programming and its too-cool-for-school beat as far up in your face as possible, while Brandon sings about the plight of some person he refers to as the “neon tiger” who is apparently being hunted or oppressed or some business. I can’t make heads or tails of it, to be honest. I kind of give up trying when he gets to the double faux pas of actually daring to write the lyrics “Come on, girls and boys! Everyone make some noise!”, and then proceeding to bellow these words as loudly and obnoxiously as possible. The song’s decently catchy aside from missteps like this… but YOUCH! There’s no coming back from that one.
9. The World We Live In
I had a dream that I was falling down
There’s no next time alone
A storm wastes its water on me
But my life was free…
At this point on the album, we’re descending further and further into mildly amusing ridiculousness. Here we’ve got another mid-tempo song that floats along to the tune of Flowers’ trademark off-key yelping about the whole world in general. It’s so loaded down with the overreaching missteps everyone makes in Songwriting 101 that I can’t say much about it that I haven’t said about earlier tracks on the album. So instead, I’ll fill this space by asking if anyone remembers the TV series Magnum, P.I., which is one of my favorite things from the 80’s. What the hell does that have to do with this song, you might ask? Well, do you remember the trademark catchphrase of the character Higgins? When he was really outraged at Magnum’s tomfoolery, he would simply shout in his refined British accent, “Oh. My. GOD!!!” Which is kind of my reaction to this song.
10. Goodnight, Travel Well
And all that stands between the soul’s release
This temporary flesh and bone
I know that it’s over now
I feel my fading mind begin to roam
And now we end the album in much the same way that we started it – with an ominous, brooding horn section. Except this time it’s a lot slower and darker, giving it that sort of feeling like you’re walking through a deserted harbor late at night. Makes sense, given that the song appears to be about the most final of farewells – death. Yep, that’s what you get at the end of a string of semi-pretentious songs about the sad state of the world we live in and the realization that “This Is Your Life”. You get a bit of vague pontificating about crossing that final threshold. It’s drawn out to a ridiculous length, and the whole thing is drenched in murky production that wants to be all ambient and indie-sounding, but really just drags on to the point of utter monotony, with the icing on the cake being the way Brandon continually croons, “There’s nothing I can say… there’s nothing I can do now.” I think the band is trying to go for a big climax or something at the end there. It’s quaint and all, but honestly, no Killers song should have the right to exist for more than about five minutes.
It’s kind of funny to come out and say, “I like this Killers album” and then get so snarky about it near the end, but I figure they’ve got a pretty solid showing in the first four tracks, and that’s enough to make me want to put an album on again and again even if most of the back half really isn’t worth my full attention. One solid track among that otherwise botched back half, plus a few other halfway-decent ones that I can sort of live with, puts the album at a slightly above average rating, which makes it a hell of an improvement over Sam’s Town, so I’ll be optimistic and say that Day & Age represents a bit of upward momentum for the band. If they can curb their tendency to write such broad, sweeping statements about the whole of life, if they can keep a good quotient of fun, danceable tracks that show off their talented guitarist and rhythm section, and if they can keep the brooding, angsty stuff to a minimum while also allowing room for the occasional experiment like “I Can’t Stay”, I think they’ll be able to maintain that momentum. But then again, I wouldn’t put it past them to totally suck on the next album as well. It’s kind of a crapshoot with these guys. (Ha! Crapshoot! I made a Vegas pun! Take THAT!!!)
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Losing Touch $1.50
Joy Ride $1.50
A Dustland Fairytale $.50
This Is Your Life $.50
I Can’t Stay $1.50
Neon Tiger $.50
The World We Live In $0
Goodnight, Travel Well $0
ALBUM WORTH: $8.50
Brandon Flowers: Lead vocals, keyboards
Dave Keuning: Guitar, backing vocals
Mark Stoermer: Bass, backing vocals
Ronnie Vannucci: Drums, percussion
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.