You can imagine that growing up in Las Vegas would give you wildly distorted and entirely wayward ideas about what the rest of the world is actually like, that you would come to regard the pervasive neon, the garish glitz, the profound seediness, the rampant amorality as totally normal and commonplace—a lurid fantasy world that completely defines your reality. But the Strip is not Main Street. That’s not really the Eiffel Tower, that’s not really Caesar’s Palace, that’s not really New York City, and that’s not really a woman.
This confusion is what makes LV pretty-boys the Killers’ blatant desire to be the Great American Rock Band so fascinating: Their conception of what “Great American” means is plainly ludicrous. (“Rock,” too, come to think of it.) First surfacing in 2004 with Hot Fuss, they began as a delightfully vapid fashionista synth-pop/dance-punk band, but soon betrayed a desperate and all-consuming longing to think Really Deep Thoughts, to transform wine into water, Nevada into Nebraska, all those glittering neon palms into The Joshua Tree. Consider “When You Were Young,” the lead single off 2006’s self-diagnosed concept album Sam’s Town, which deigned to chart “the sad demise of our old-fashioned American values,” as its press materials insisted, which here means incredibly expensive-sounding synth-pop/dance-punk songs about down-and-out blue-collar losers stuck in “two-star towns.” Listen to “Uncle Johnny” at your own risk. The condescension was total, and totally engrossing, and nowhere more so than on “When You Were Young,” wherein frontman Brandon Flowers thundered the line “And sometimes you close your eyes and see the place where you used to live,” with a resoundingly pompous, bombastic, all-caps/boldface/italicized bellow, as though he were Bruce Springsteen reciting the Ten Commandments to a crowd of hundreds of thousands. These guys just want it so bad, to mean something, to speak for us, to ascend to Super Bowl halftime show Voice of a Generation heights. It’s the funniest rock-‘n’-roll song of the past five years and, naturally, quite possibly the best.
So now comes Day & Age, a luxurious, hedonistic epic produced by Stuart Price—he of Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor (i.e. her last good record), plus a fantastic disco-fied remix of early Killers smash “Mr. Brightside”—that boasts the same alluring contradiction: It sounds like approximately $10 million (it’s basically Bottle Service: The Album, and just in time!) but attempts to rhapsodize the downtrodden and penniless. Typical song title: “A Dustland Fairytale.” Typical soul-searching refrain: “Are we human/Or are we dancer?” (?) “We talked about the real things and drove into the fire,” Flowers intones on the ridiculous asexual sex jam “Joy Ride,” and as he awkwardly gyrates about to a torrent of Miami Sound Machine accoutrement (congas, horns, funky bass), you gotta wonder what these guys consider “real things.” His lyrics leap haphazardly from striving-American-heartland clichés (“wishing well,” “hopes and dreams,” “when your chips are down,” “the great beyond”) to botched zen koan/pickup-line nonsense, e.g. “They say the Nile used to run from east to west.”
Of course—and you can’t overemphasize this—it all sounds fantastic, no matter how implausible it gets: Watch in awe as “Are we human/Or are we dancer?” is transformed into one of the year’s prettiest, most rousing choruses, delicate and soaring, grammatically unsound gibberish rendered improbably profound. Any attempt to embellish the synth-guitar-bass-drums foundation, though, meets with near-disaster: The Stax-on-Atlantis horns on “Losing Touch,” the cruise-ship steel drums of “I Can’t Stay,” the Ladysmith Lily-White Mambazo rockapella hiccups that drive “This Is Your Life.” But every tune eventually resolves to another effortlessly delicate/rousing/soaring chorus, belying the eternal wisdom of a band savvy enough to realize that the most important part of U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” goes “Oh oh-oh oh/Oh oh-oh oh/Oh oh-oh oh/Oh oh-oh oh.”
As further proof, join us now at a sold-out Hammerstein Ballroom on a late October Friday night, the Killers and their rapt, severely inebriated audience a splendid antidote to a week’s worth of CMJ shows full of vanilla-indie yawners way too cool to express enthusiasm of any kind. No, here we can all scream the words to “When You Were Young” together, and that’s just the opener. As I recollect, everyone seemed to hate the rest of Sam’s Town at the time, but tonight those tunes receive the same warm reception as the Hot Fuss hits. A popular activity at Killers shows apparently is for a soused couple to face each other and scream the words jubilantly into each other’s faces, which gets confusing when said words are, like, “Somebody told me/That you had a boyfriend/That looked like a girlfriend/That I had in February of last year,” etc., but, ah, fuck it. For someone whose lyrics (usually) betray such messianic aspirations, Flowers is not a particularly flamboyant frontman, with no particularly theatrical stage moves, unless you count standing on a monitor and thrusting his perfect cheekbones out into the adoring crowd, which I don’t, really. Nice feathers. Anyway, any line, no matter how nonsensical, sounds positively brilliant when shouted by a roomful of people, even the infamous Hot Fuss chorus “I got soul but I’m not a soldier,” which when shouted en masse sounds suspiciously like “I got sold but I’m not sober,” but that fits, too.
Most of the goofier Day & Age tracks the Killers dust off tonight are met with cheerful indifference—I assume all the horns are synthesized until I realize the couple in front of me who’ve been jubilantly screaming lyrics at each other the whole time are just blocking my view of the sax player—but if nothing else, “Human” will join the pantheon, once again justifying this band’s oft-outrageous ambition. The record ends with the seven-minute mini-epic “Goodnight, Travel Well,” a slow-burning ballad that slowly builds to chest-beating, Broadway-climax histrionics. We’re back to Great American Rock Band sermonizing here—”All that stands between the soul’s release is temporary flesh and bone,” etc. You’re not alone if that doesn’t particularly mean anything to you, but what it means is less important than the mere fact that the Killers are trying to make it mean something. We appreciate the effort, that most fundamental of American traits, and that holds true whether you’re from New York City, Detroit, Kansas City, Death Valley, Sam’s Town, or, yes, Vegas.