All too human
Killers’ third album fails at compromise between extremes of the first two
Wed, Nov 26, 2008 (midnight)
Photo Illustration by Jerry Miller
By no means is Brandon Flowers the first misunderstood poet in rock: Multitudinous are the fans who think Jimi Hendrix was singing “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy” in “Purple Haze,” or that Kurt Cobain was complaining about a mosquito in his burrito in “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” One problem is that The Killers’ bandleader desperately wants to be quoted thinking great thoughts. “I was aching over those lyrics for a very long time to get them right,” he said of “Human,” the first single from the band’s third album, during an interview with MTV News.
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Yeah, well, it really doesn’t matter that the chef labored over a dish for 10 hours if the diner thinks it tastes like warm crap on a plate. The first mini-contretemps stemming from Day & Age also illustrates two other shortcomings on the part of The Killers’ auteur: the inability to laugh at himself and the difficulty in accepting that his idea might not have been the best. “Are we human/Or are we denser” is an infinitely better line than the intended “Are we human/Or are we dancer,” and not only because it’s grammatically correct.
Flowers insists he was referencing Hunter S. Thompson’s quote that America is “raising a generation of dancers”—unthinking zombies partying while Rome is burning—but Thompson had an even more famous quote about the world in which The Killers operate. “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs,” he wrote. “There’s also a negative side.”
From their start early in the new millennium, The Killers have been thieves, and as Dr. Gonzo indicated, that’s not the worst thing. Their 2004 debut Hot Fuss became a multiplatinum smash precisely because it was so much better than the many other new wave of new wave bands aping The Cure and The Smiths, since it added a campy glam sensibility (heavy on the Queen, Bowie and T. Rex) and a heaping dose of bubblegum pop that made “Mr. Brightside,” “Midnight Show” and the rest irresistible as good dumb fun. These were simple pleasures, but pleasures nonetheless, and then the boys went and got heavy with their Bruce Springsteen, blue-collar Beat-poetic pretensions on Sam’s Town (2006), trying to make some grander point about the soul of America obscured behind the superficial filigree, when the superficial filigree was what they always did best.
The third time out, The Killers try to split the difference between the extremes of their first two discs. But this is not a band that’s comfortable with compromise, and as a result, they get both the heaviosity and the “here we are now, entertain us” fabulously wrong.
With regard to the former, Flowers told Rolling Stone that he viewed Day & Age as a continuation of Sam’s Town, only “more universal.” So in place of philosophical observations from the bar of a forgotten dive, we get existential musings on the meaning of life from the perspective of outer space: “The song-maker says, ‘It ain’t so bad’/The dream-maker’s gonna make you mad/The spaceman says, ‘Everybody look down/It’s all in your mind,’” he sings in “Spaceman,” while in “Goodnight, Travel Well,” a song so absurdly overblown it makes “Bohemian Rhapsody” sound like “Louie Louie,” he opines that “the unknown distance to the great beyond/Stares back at my grieving frame/To cast my shadow by the holy sun/My spirit moans with a sacred pain/And it’s quiet now/The universe is standing still.”
Lord, what a load of a hooey, but we could tune out all of it and ‘‘the heat of the Southwest sun,’’ too, if only Flowers, Dave Keuning, Mark Stoermer and Ronnie Vannucci were still delivering the goods with delightfully addictive hooks. Alas, working with Stuart Price, the Brit producer best known for Madonna’s 2005 product Confessions on a Dance Floor, they adorn the simplest ranch house of a melody with the silliest Bellagio excesses, inexplicably littering on steel drums, congas and timbales (“I Can’t Stay” and “Joy Ride,” which would embarrass the Barry Manilow of “Copacabana”), mock South African choirs paired with martial drums (“This Is Your Life”), a ham-handed evocation of Bono fronting a community orchestra (“A Dustland Fairytale”) and everywhere, absolutely everywhere, some of the worst saxophone ever heard in rock ’n’ roll.
The aim may have been Roxy Music, but where Andy McKay expertly melded ’50s schlock and bebop genius, The Killers give us Clarence Clemons on Ecstasy and Viagra.
The album’s first track, “Losing Touch,” attempts to build what philosophers call a deterrence machine, offsetting what The Killers knew would be the obvious criticisms before the listeners have a chance to raise them: “You go run and tell your friends I’m losing touch,” Flowers dares us. Well, Brandon, I just did, and as for the dilemma you pose in that other ditty, I have to say you’re all too human—and as dense as dirt, at least when it comes to discerning your best impulses from the worst.
Jim DeRogatis is the Chicago Sun-Times’ pop music critic, author of several books including Let It Blurt and co-host of “Sound Opinions” on National Public Radio.