The Killers: Not Enough Like Def Leppard
Leppard never would've released an album with a cover this lame
Chuck Eddy's 1991 book Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe ends in a list of 25 reasons why disco-metal will rule the 90s; his reasons have a lot to do with Van Halen's "Dance the Night Away" and Axl Rose hanging out with George Michael. It didn't happen, of course; metal sludged up and started trying to become as scary as rap, somehow losing all connections to hooks and rhythm somewhere along the way and ending up as the extremely-extreme echo chamber niche market it is now; as much as I love bands like Mastodon and Trivium, neither of them has ever contemplated what they might have to do to get people dancing to their shit. But then, Chuck's take on metal was always a far-left example of popist contrarianism; he lists Teena Marie's Emerald City at #9 and Slayer's Reign in Blood at like #460. When Chuck was writing his book, metal was a dominant pop genre, and maybe it didn't seem entirely unreasonable that metal in particular and mainstream rock in general would pay a little more attention to its rhythms, that it would absorb and internalize the beats from house and synthpop and rap and new-jack swing and all the other beat-driven genres that were flourishing all around it. I finished Chuck's book last night around 4 a.m. and immediately went on an insomnia-driven iTunes spree, buying anything I could find that had even a tertiary relationship to Chuck's idea of disco-metal: Ace Frehley's "New York Groove," Madonna's "Burning Up," Billy Squier's "The Stroke," Def Leppard's Hysteria. Listening today, Hysteria sounds pretty much perfect: an immaculately produced, unapologetically frivolous rock record without any ambitions beyond rocking people and making people happy. There's never been a rock record that sounded remotely like it, and a lot of that comes from a sort of innovation by necessity. Between Pyromania and Hysteria, of course, Leppard drummer Rick Allen lost his arm in a car crash, so the band had to find ways of writing big rock songs around the absurd limitation of a three-limbed drummer. They came up with an elaborate system of electronic drum-triggers that sounded something like the futuristic stomp that Rick Rubin was giving LL Cool J and Run-DMC at the time, and that became the backbone for all their enormous hooks and expensive guitar crunches and gleaming synth arpeggios. It's electro-metal, and it's fun to imagine what might've happened if someone had gone around amputating an arm off every prominent rock drummer at the time just so they would've been forced to catch up with Leppard.
Hysteria came out long enough ago that it's hard to imagine a time when anyone would've called it metal; if any band was going to make a 2006 equivalent of Hysteria, it'd have to be the utterly non-metal Killers. At the moment, the Killers are an anomaly: a huge-selling young rock band with a rhythmic dance-pulse, a knack for big hooks, a desire to be something other than comfort food, and a debatable sense of their own ridiculousness. Pretty much every other rock band to achieve any level of popularity in the last few years has either had to resort to emo histrionics (Fall Out Boy), appeals to outmoded ideas of authenticity (the White Stripes), or whooshingly bland stadium-sighs (Coldplay). All three of those approaches can produce occasional great results (Fall Out Boy, the White Stripes, and Coldplay, to name three examples), but none of them is going to give us the next Hysteria. The Killers managed to stand out by streamlining the cooler-than-thou poses of the aborted circa-2001 New Rock Revolution and hooking them up to huge, clean hooks. "Somebody Told Me" felt like fake Faint at first, but that maddeningly alliterative hook wormed its way into brains everywhere and somehow transcended its trite lite androgyny. And "Mr. Brightside" and "All These Things That I've Done" did grandiose mope like no one since, I don't know, Echo & the Bunnymen. At least half of Hot Fuss is full-on garbage, but those singles showed a playful sweep, the kind of winking enormity that actually speaks to people across subcultural barriers and thus finds itself breaking completely out of subcultural ghettos. Hysteria was Def Leppard's follow-up to their pop breakthrough, Pyromania, and they spent a few years honing their already great sound into a monolithic boom-swish that could move mountains. The Killers took about the same amount of time, but they don't focus their strengths on the new album the way Leppard did. Instead, they decided to be cowboys or whatever.
Brandon Flowers has brought up Bruce Springsteen as the band's new key influence in every one of the kajillion interviews he's given promoting Sam's Town, but I don't hear much Bruce in this mess. I guess Flowers is writing about "the American masquerade" and his uncle Johnny or whatever, but he can't write a lyric to save his life and no one ever expected him to. The guitars are bigger, but Springsteen's guitars were never particularly huge anyway. So the only real Springsteen echo comes from the fact that most of the songs are constructed in completely counterintuitive ways. Springsteen can sometimes make that work; the Killers can't. Most of the songs on Sam's Town have great glassy intros that go all to shit once the guitar vroom kicks in. "Bling (Confessions of a King)" starts out sounding something like Evanescence: ominous synth-tinkles, florid drama-goth delivery, house kickdrums. But it turns into boring mush-rock before long, switching guitar sounds every five seconds and never settling on a real vocal hook. It's not a depressive anthem like "Mr. Brightside"; it's a blown-out Big Statement. "For Reasons Unknown" has drums that stay frisky and guitars that don't, and its Europop keyboards don't make up for its inert solemnity. The Bryan Adams guitars and fake choir vocals and Panic! at the Disco bloop-organ on "Bones" would all work just fine by themselves, but they never gel. Other tracks make stabs at Arcade Fire and Bright Eyes territory, the sort of grave, passionate squall that this band should never, ever attempt. Sam's Town has a few great songs (the title track, "When You Were Young," "Read My Mind) that'll only get better the more we hear them, but even these songs are stuck with a few touches of self-sabotage like the farting marching-band horns on the title track's outro. The whole album comes with a sad sense that the Killers have abandoned everything that was ever potentially great about them so they could reach for some nebulous notion of artistic transcendence that'll always be beyond them; their brand-new ass-ugly mustaches certainly bear that idea out. There's more sheer exuberance in any random twenty-second chunk of Hysteria than there is in all of Sam's Town, and that counts as a big-ass missed opportunity.
Voice review: Amy Phillips on the Killers at Irving Plaza