With their debut album, 2004’s landmark ‘Hot Fuss’, The Killers seemed to appear out of nowhere, both geographically and musically: a bunch of fresh-faced Las Vegas natives in the era of scrappy American garage rock, playing synthy new wave and sounding for all the world like they were from London or Manchester rather than the middle of the Nevada desert. Espousing their love for Oasis and Depeche Mode and sporting guyliner and pink leather blazers – the kind of look last seen in Duran Duran videos twenty years prior – they were routinely hailed in the press as “the best British band from America”, cultivating a devoted UK fanbase in the process.
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This wasn’t a problem, per se, especially given the members’ genuine adoration for all things British – but like most things associated with Vegas, something about it seemed a little forced and insincere. And the band picked up on this, resolving to re-discover and re-embrace their American roots on the second go around. A main catalyst for their change in direction would be frontman Brandon Flowers’ chance discovery of Bruce Springsteen – a man whose name, of course, is basically synonymous with ‘red, white and blue’ – on the radio, an influence that would redefine their entire existence, and whose ghost would eventually pop up all over the record’s twelve tracks.
Just as the task of becoming a ‘serious rock band’ entailed injecting a dose of visual testosterone by swapping the androgynous lip gloss and sequins for rugged double denim and cowboy attire, so too this meant manning up their sound. Dave Keuning’s guitars were heavier, louder and more chaotic – with the keys playing second fiddle throughout – and the dry-witted lyrics about nightlife and bisexual girlfriends became altogether more earnest and intense; exit looking up pretty girls’ skirts, enter running with the devil, pleading with God to save your soul, and getting their glory in the desert rain. But most noticeable of all was how Flowers’ voice had evolved; upon finding Americana, he traded in his detached, deadpan croon – complete with the supposedly accidental fake English accent that was equal parts Morrissey and Dave Gahan – for a purposefully rawer, nervous bellow (influenced by his newfound hero The Boss) that has been his trademark ever since.
Recorded in the basement of The Palms Casino resort just off the Vegas strip, Sam’s Town is an album as bombastic and over-the-top as Sin City itself. Lead-off track ‘Sam’s Town’, in fact, begins like a modern show tune, complete with rising fanfare strings, though Keuning’s muscular, rumbling riff soon exposes the track’s seedy underbelly. “Nobody ever had a dream round here/but I don’t really mind that it’s starting to get to me,” Flowers‘ voice jitters restlessly over a beat that retains their indie disco inclinations, as if he knows what’s about to come and can’t wait to get to the first of many spectacular choruses. The whole song acts like an exposition, laying down the backstory for the ensuing tales about the struggle to dream big and “break out of this two star town”: “I’m so sick of all my judges/so scared of letting me shine”, he cries in the refrain, “but I know that I can make it, as long as someone takes me home every now and then.”
A kitschy, saloon-style ‘Enterlude’ (later reprised at the album’s conclusion) follows, but, after that, all bets are off, and the pace and all-or-nothing passion rarely lets up for the next forty minutes, as they keep their influences easily visible on their sleeve. Lead single ‘When You Were Young’ melds a heroic, jangly guitar line with post-punk vigour, ostensibly trying to be a ‘Born to Run’ for the new millennium – “we’re burning down the highway skyline on the back of a hurricane” is ripped unashamedly straight out of the Springsteen phrasebook – whilst ‘Bling (Confession of a King)’ is a tale of being lost in the desert that channels ‘The Joshua Tree’ era U2 with phenomenal results.
Sam’s Town also broke new ground for Flowers in terms of vulnerability and writing from a biographical standpoint – whether it’s reaching out to his real-life, drug-addicted ‘Uncle Jonny’ (his decisive, ad-libbed “hey Jonny, I got faith in you man – I mean it, it’s gonna be alright!” in particular seems a touching personal shoutout), struggling with crippling self-doubt in the stunning ‘This River is Wild’, or the theatrical, Bowie-esque closer ‘Why Do I Keep Counting?’, which begins as a simple comment on his fear of flying, but descends into a full-on rumination on death and mortality.
These are undeniably heavy themes, and they make Flowers come across as much older and wiser than his then-25 years; his youthful naivety is only really revealed on ‘Bones’, an irresistibly sunny pop number which finds the young, sexually frustrated narrator alternating between berating and heaping adoration upon his unremarkable would-be lover, eventually electing to go with her regardless because he has no other options. It’s a gloriously juvenile, desperate plea for love – arrogant yet self-deprecating – delivered with a knowing wink, and a sign that even after their mature makeover they still knew how to have fun.
It’s the wistful and nostalgic ‘Read My Mind’, though, that turned out to be the true centrepiece of the record, being as it is a firm fan favourite and one that even their biggest detractors admit is a musical triumph. Backed by a warm, gentle synths and twinkling guitars, Flowers attempts to convince his lady to come with him and leave their humble, dead end lives (“I don’t mind if you don’t mind, ‘coz I don’t shine if you don’t shine”, he admits more than once) to start anew. Featuring both one of Flowers’ most affecting set of lyrics and vocal performances, it’s the perfect melding of their earlier glitzy synthpop leanings with their newfound earnestness and sentimentality, and the band themselves still consider it the best thing they’ve ever done.
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A brave and divisive album that was both praised and ridiculed (often within the same review) upon release, ‘Sam’s Town’ has come to be seen by most listeners and critics alike as their crowning achievement in the decade since it dropped, with even the intially harsh and infamously stubborn Rolling Stone magazine naming it, retrospectively, the most underrated album of the decade. It was the sign of a band taking off their training wheels, leaving behind the music they had collectively grown up with and finding their own identity; never before had a major band re-invented themselves so successfully so quickly whilst directly in the public eye.
They would retain the Americana slant and world-beating ambition on subsequent records, but ‘Day and Age’ would mix this with the Brit-flavoured synth stylings of their debut, and ‘Battle Born’ eventually saw them mellow out into elder statesman of heartland rock. ‘Sam’s Town’, though, is the sound of a hungry, rejuvenated young band with everything to prove, and as such it remains unlike any other record in their discography.