Look on the bright side
Although they’ve taken some flak, the Killers are an unstoppable force, says Dan Cairns
In the case of Brandon Flowers, that journey is a work in progress. The Killers’ main man and his band may have sold more than 5m copies of their 2004 debut album, Hot Fuss, but the 25-year-old singer continues to struggle with the basic rules of the rock game. In the build-up to the release of the Las Vegans’ new record, Sam’s Town, he allowed himself to be quoted describing it as “one of the best albums in the past 20 years”, and revealed that he had been listening to Bruce Springsteen while making it. Noses were put out of joint, unflattering comparisons made, pens dipped in vitriol.
If we accept that big rock acts — and their albums, lyrics, live shows, mythology — represent a speeding charabanc to which we hitch our own trailers and baggage, then what is the Killers’ appeal? It’s undeniable that they have it: in spite of some savage reviews (notably in Rolling Stone), Sam’s Town entered the British chart at No 1 and the American at No 2, and the current tour sold out in minutes. Flowers is an intriguing character. He can wear a pink leather jacket and slap on eyeliner, but he never wholly occupies the persona he’s adopted. Perhaps, though, that’s what people find endearing. He may not look much of a star, but they like, if you will, what they don’t see.
In person, the man who, 2 years ago in San Francisco, could begin a meaningful conversation for the band’s first newspaper interview only after several hours of averted eyes and small talk is as elusive as ever. Yesterday evening, during an excruciating live Q&A at a Toronto music station, he muttered “We’re still terrible at interviews” — before saying, pleadingly: “We don’t have all the answers.” A few would help.
Ask him a straight question and he meets your inquiry with a fluting, nervous laugh. Answers are delivered haltingly, with a jumbled delivery that is a dead ringer for James Stewart’s, and a downward gaze that recalls Princess Diana. You end up wanting to reassure him (or give him a good shake). Does he think his pre-release remarks were wise? “Well, it’s obviously been proved that they weren’t,” he says, laughing mirthlessly. “But I was really just saying how I felt. And I said it was one of the best albums in the past 20 years, not the best. There’s a big difference. And there are days when I think it’s terrible. Did it put a target on us? It did; there’s no doubt. I feel sorry for my band, because I said it and they’ve just got to deal with that.”
What seems to have got a lot of reviewers’ goats was, first, the sense that Flowers was indeed attempting to do a Boss, with lyrics abounding with references to horizons and highways, to sunsets, Main Streets and skylines; and, second, the singer’s quoted nostalgia for an imagined idyll, located some time in the 1950s — reinforced when he sings, on Read My Mind, “The good old days/The honest men/The restless heart/The promised land” — and the naming of the album after an old-school casino on the wrong side of the Vegas tracks. That Flowers is a church-going, avowed believer (he was brought up a Mormon) was grist to the mill. “It’s seen as stupid,” he says contemptuously, “that you must be an idiot.”
But in knocking Sam’s Town, and Hot Fuss before it, as pale imitations of the genres the two albums were influenced by (chiefly, 1980s British new wave and big-canvas 1970s American rock), the critics were guilty of a purism that came across as deeply reactionary. “Sam’s Town,” Flowers says, “was us making a mark on where we came from. That, to me, was kind of our job right now. I eat in a restaurant called the Skyline hotel and casino; I grew up on a street called Horizon; Sunset’s the biggest street. They are all staples in Las Vegas.” He doesn’t buy the idea that classics stopped being made 30 years ago, that nobody is capable of making a modern one. “But (the critics) don’t want to believe that it can be done. Because we hold Led Zeppelin and, of course, the Beatles, the Stones, so high, it seems we can’t let ourselves believe anyone could ever do that again.” For the first time, he’s making eye contact. “Especially not us,” he adds mordantly. “I felt the real spirit with me while I was writing the entire album. I really felt like I had a purpose. And now I’ve almost been shredded down to nothing from all these reviews.”
“It’s tough being us,” chuckles Mark Stoermer, the band’s towering, laconic bassist. But Stoermer doesn’t do anger; his shtick is a winning, bone-dry mixture of amusement and resignation, and he’s been rolling it out a lot in recent days. “It’s not, like, made in a lab then given to the band,” he says of their music. “Everyone says, ‘What’s the plan? What did you seek to do?’ But we just got in a room together, wrote some songs and chose what we thought were the best. Yet it’s talked about like we chose to write these songs almost like you choose to wear a shirt.”
Stoermer thinks the supposed stylistic leap between the two albums, from Hot Fuss’s cold, androgynous electro-rock to Sam’s Town’s broad-brush epic grandeur, has been exaggerated too. “It’s not that far-fetched that the new songs come from the same band. The pop sensibility is still there. Okay, we’re not reinventing the wheel, but at the same time, I don’t think anybody can make this sound but us.”
Over the course of two shows in Canada, the Killers’ touch reasserts itself. You could argue that Sam’s Town is an album that lacked an editor or a longer gestation that might have afforded greater perspective. Live, though — golly, do these new songs work. In a packed show at the music station, teenage girls alternately dance and blush as Flowers sings to them only feet away. They are already word-perfect on the new material. When Flowers reaches the denouement of Bling (Confession of a King), a song inspired by his father’s battle with drink and salvation through faith, a Muslim girl in a hijab punches the air and hollers along to “Higher and higher/We’re going to take it down to the wire.” It is, well, like a revivalist meeting. The spirit is with them, too.
Later, Flowers says, to himself as much as anyone else: “Pretty soon, we’ll be in Britain (the country that first embraced them) and when we play that song and get to ‘Higher and higher’, it won’t matter what Rolling Stone wrote any more.”
The following night, another sellout crowd takes over vocal duties on songs old and new. Up on the drum riser, silhouetted with his mike stand in the air, Flowers looks like the rock star he always aspired to be. Next to him, his Marc Bolan Afro backlit like a 1960s hippie poster, the guitarist Dave Keuning scythes through a song with the lightness of a feather, the key, as ever, to the band’s sound. And Ronnie Vannucci beats merry hell out of his drums as his face contorts into the farting-wasps expressions for which he is famous. On Read My Mind, Flowers describes romantic rapture as “magic soaking my spine”. And that’s how it feels tonight.
“It’s just about that spirit that still exists in me,” Flowers says afterwards. “So I want to show it to people, young kids that aren’t quite getting it because of Paris Hilton and all that junk.” He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus, to quote the chorus of When You Were Young. But Flowers and his band are seeking fresh converts, and suffering for their beliefs. And we have yet to forsake them. He’s mastered the fire and the brimstone (and the hook-filled chorus, too). All he needs to do now is learn how to dance.