Back in October 2006 The Killers surprised everyone by ditching their sparkly new wave aesthetic and swapping it for something a lot more rugged. Gone was the shimmer and shine of ‘Hot Fuss‘, in came driving guitars as rough as the desert scrubland where second album ‘Sam’s Town‘ was set. On its release, the record came in for its far share of stick – Brandon Flowers and his bandmate’s risk-taking reinvention looked like it had failed.
Now, as the band prepare to celebrate the album’s tenth anniversary with two shows at the casino that gave it its name, a walking tour of The Killers’ Las Vegas and more, it seems like the perfect time to reassess those reactions. And as it turns out, the world might have been too harsh on ‘Sam’s Town’, a record of ambitious storytelling and an early hint at how Flowers’ frontmanship was to develop over the years that followed. Let’s take a look at some of the criticisms levelled at the album and how they stand up now.
Criticism 1: Aside from the singles, there were no good songs on the record
We can’t deny that ‘When You Were Young’, ‘Read My Mind’, ‘For Reasons Unknown’ and ‘Bones’ are massive tunes that threaten to overshadow the rest of the record, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only songs worth your time here. ‘My List’ is an ode to keeping a relationship alive that veers from frail beginnings to a stomping, air-punching chorus; ‘This River Is Wild’ is an up-and-at-’em anthem about taking charge of your life. There’s a kind of spectral, curious quality to ‘Why Do I Keep Counting?’, and the title track is a bridge between the band’s debut and their new approach: new wave-y synths and chugging rock with the American mid-west at its heart. Sure, some of the aforementioned might not be as immediate or wake-up-three-weeks-later-still-humming-it infectious as the singles, but there’s no denying the rest of the album is chocka with big songs of depth and quality. Tunes for days, basically.
Criticism 2: The band had begun to take themselves too seriously
One of the most endearing things about ‘Hot Fuss’ was how knowing it was. It felt like the criticism you could point at it (too pretentious, too pompous) were the reactions the band were hoping for. ‘Sam’s Town’, perhaps in part because of Flowers’ newfound earnestness (more of that later), lost that quality. Where ‘Hot Fuss’ demanded to be listened to under the glimmer of a disco ball, the blue collar rock of ‘Sam’s Town’ was to be listened to under the hood of a car in the grease of a garage. It was, essentially, a complete about-face.
Yes, the album might sound big and lofty, with weighty lyrics about the devil and Jesus, but there’s still some fun left to be squeezed out of it. There’s ‘Enterlude’ and ‘Exitlude’, the band’s tongue-in-cheek greeting and goodbye, designed as if they’re serenading you from the stage of some tacky, past-its-prime casino bar. There’s the fact that one song is seriously called ‘Bling (Confessions Of A King)’, and then there’s ‘Bones’, the band’s Queen-aping, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’-channelling mini-epic. Hardly sounds like a band taking themselves too seriously to us.
Criticism 3: The characters were too cartoonish
This accusation was largely directed at the song ‘Uncle Jonny’, a song about Flowers’ uncle, who was a drug addict. Whether it was Flowers’ spoken word reassurance of “Hey Johnny, I got faith in you man/I mean it, it’s gonna be all right” or the baritone choir trading lines with the frontman towards the song’s end, or the lyrics about coke making him feel like Superman or shocking all those around him, it feels like a claim that’s largely unfounded. Sure, Flowers may have exaggerated or embellished to aid the song, but cartoonish is an adjective too far. Bombastic, perhaps, but not quite cartoonish.
Criticism 4: Brandon Flowers had become too earnest
On ‘Hot Fuss’, Flowers’ emotion was kept largely in check so when he came out bellowing and howling on its successor, voice cracking and rasping, it was something of a surprise. Yes, ‘Sam’s Town’-era Flowers is one full of heart and earnestness, but, really, the songs demanded that version of him. Would lyrics like ‘When You Were Young”s “We’re burning down the highway skyline/On the back of a hurricane that started turning” have anywhere near the desired impact if he’d delivered them cold and deadpan? Absolutely not. Also, one listen to ‘This River Is Wild’ will tell you immediately that there was still room for a little frivolity in Flowers’ vocals. That jerked out falsetto when he sings “I shake a little” midway through makes that crystal clear.
Criticism 5: Brandon’s Springsteen impression wasn’t very good
Bruce Springsteen is, undoubtedly, the big influence and Flowers’ might have been trying a touch too hard to emulate The Boss, but his turn on ‘Sam’s Town’ was really just one mega hint at what to expect from The Killers frontman in the future. Since this album he’s absolutely nailed the art of writing The Great American Rock Song, putting a magnifying glass over life’s inhabitants and situations just like Springsteen, but keeping enough of himself in there to make it more than mere copying. Check his latest solo album ‘The Desired Effect’ if you don’t believe us.
Criticism 6: It was too clichéd to be any good
On ‘Sam’s Town’, Flowers really went to town with his religious imagery and lines that really evoked the spirit of hearty American rock, depicting mountains and rivers, the road and the desert. There’s the struggle and the glory of life woven throughout, and a tension between the notion of the Land Of The Free and the reality of life in midwest America. The cover shows a beauty pageant winner stood in front of a tarnished trailer, just racking up the amount of stereotypes you can fit in one album. In places, ‘Sam’s Town’ is definitely clichéd, but there are other moments that really shine and make it the album that it is.
Case in point: the aspirational encouragement of ‘This River Is Wild’ and lines like “This town was meant for passing through/Boy, it ain’t nothin’ new/Now go and show ’em that the world stayed round“. The idea of a dead-end town and going out into the world and not giving up are nothing new and, yes, could be considered clichéd, but there’s something about how The Killers shape these lyrics that makes you want to thrust your fist up in the air with determination.