Before we go any further we need to set the record straight. Three and a bit years ago, at the very start of The Killers’ UK assault, this writer reviewed one of their live shows and suggested that, bar the odd freak storm of melodic synth genius, they were essentially a retro, electro-pop pastiche writing po-faced tunes called things like ‘Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll’ without anything like enough knowingness. We remember this mainly because, for at least the next 12 months, Brandon Flowers would bring it up at every available opportunity – as though 200 words on page 53 of his favourite music magazine somehow kept him awake at night more than his 4million debut album sales, three Top 10 tunes, one festival anthem and the 1,500 crappy soundalike clones he and his band spawned the day they discovered the ’80s. What we rather cruelly neglected to tell him though (until now) was that, a week later, we’d given ‘Hot Fuss’ another spin and, along with the rest of the world, realised that it was actually amazing. Still prancing, pompous and so shamelessly studied in places – but magnificently, ridiculously so. And this is why all that talk earlier this summer of The Killers having razed their electro-fey history for a more macho, Americana-steeped second album came as such dismal news.
So, while we’re here, we might as well set another record straight. Much has been made of Bruce Springsteen’s omnipotent presence on The Killers’ new sound. Unsurprisingly (did you hear the first album?), it’s not strictly true. OK, the pink blazers may have been ritualistically burnt in favour of five o’clock shadows and oil-stained denim, but The Boss’ influences are – save a couple of piano-belted rock’n’roll numbers near the end – fairly cosmetic. Get past the cover image of a depressingly budget beauty pageant scene (a parody of the American Dream learnt straight from the school of Springsteen’s ‘Born In The USA’) and the only other place you’re going to get grizzly man-rock is in Brandon’s lyrics. Because ‘Sam’s Town’ (named after a casino in their seedy home city of Las Vegas) is clearly the same band of Anglo-maniacs who brought metrosexuality mainstream with ‘Hot Fuss’. They’ve just scrubbed off their make-up, beefed up the vocals and found the turbo-charge button on their tune-making machine. If there’s one obvious new noise on this record, it’s actually that of U2’s ramped-up, stadium synth-rock. Listen to immense lead-off single ‘When You Were Young’ or righteous and anthemic album highlight ‘Read My Mind’, and it’s little surprise to learn that Alan Moulder and Flood (two of U2’s regular make-it-go-massive production team) are behind the spaceship controls again here. And when Brandon’s not imbibing Bono’s spirit, it’s Bowie, Queen and even Muse being soundchecked: ‘Why Do I Keep Counting’ is an ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’-style epic that starts all kaleidoscopic and ‘Space Oddity’, before building into this album’s ‘Heroes’; saucy mini-opera ‘Bones’ (“don’t you want to come with me?/Don’t you want to feel my bones on your bones?/It’s only natural”) borrows its histrionic four-part harmony breakdown straight from ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’; and with galloping drums and crazy prog build-ups, ‘Bling (Confession Of A King)’ is basically ‘Knights Of Cydonia’ minus Matt Bellamy’s squawking. Elsewhere ‘For Reasons Unknown’ and ‘Uncle Jonny’ are the classic ‘Mr Brightside’ and ‘Smile Like You Mean It’ disco-noir sound, with Brandon as a newly tutored vocal virtuoso up front.
Even the words are worth checking out this time round. Gone are the gender-bending boyfriends, fashionista warblings and ill-considered tributes to murdered teenagers. Now Brandon’s hanging out in dead-end streets, heading for wild desert landscapes and (here’s where the Springsteen fixation finally becomes apparent) “burning down the highway skyline”. Think that sounds heavy? It’s also an album preoccupied with judgement – both from the back-sniping Las Vegas peers The Killers left spluttering in the Nevada dust on their fast-track to fame and free designer trainers (see opener ‘Sam’s Town’), and The Big Man himself. Jesus, the Devil and a host of angels all pop up along the 12-track ride to wrestle with Brandon’s married, morally upstanding Mormon soul (“It’s hard trying to keep on the right side in this land of free rides” – ‘Bling…’). Meanwhile, ‘Why Do I Keep Counting?’ uses the singer’s fear of flying as a smokescreen for a much deeper musing on mortality.
All this, however, isn’t to say that The Killers have gone all (God forbid) serious on us. The tunes may be huger, the influences cleverer, the lyrics more adventurous and the band more self-assured, but their primary concern is still being the biggest indie-pop stars on the planet. For all their smart new ways, The Killers are still as flashy, unintentionally funny, and flagrantly affected as ever – and this time we wouldn’t even pretend to have it any other way.