The seed of the Killers was planted in late 2002, when 21-year old Brandon Flowers eyed guitarist David Keuning’s ad in a local Las Vegas newspaper. The ad called for musicians capable of helping Keuning realize a dream of an Oasis-influenced band, but Flowers was fixated on ’80s new wave, and the band became something a little less somber and a lot more glamorous. Drummer Ronnie Vannucci and bassist Mark Stoermer soon came on board, and after a year of the requisite indie buzz, the Killers’ debut appeared in the summer of 2004.
With hooks as sweaty and glittering as the band’s hometown, Hot Fuss kicks off with an impressive bundle of radio-ready tunes. The shamelessly addictive “Mr. Brightside” is a campy amalgam of Duran Duran’s sex-driven lyrics and today’s indie playfulness. “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” and “Somebody Told Me” are similarly charming, but then the retro swirl ends, and album’s second half blurs together in faceless, overproduced (by the band and Jeff Saltzman) clutter. Still, despite the frigid bore of the album’s latter half, the initial grandiosity of the songwriting and vocals make it possible that the Killers can avoid the bleak fate shared by other new wave gimmick acts. This playful homage to Depeche Mode and the Cure will suffice for the time being, but the second album could be the real killer for this enthusiastic quartet.
Upon its release, Sam’s Town (a knowing Las Vegas reference) showed every sign that it would be the killer for the band. But in entirely the wrong way. Apparently chastened by their popular perception as just another ’80s/retro act, the Killers (paradoxically with the help of producers Alan Moulder and Flood, who bring solid experience in that era) went for a more serious statement. As the title track kicks off the album, the lonesome cowboy whistle that comes in around the edges sets the overall tone and theme that the quartet is aiming for: sweeping Western panoramas, hopes and dreams and faded glory. The epic and the iconic, that sort of thing. The lyrics are full of references to being born on the Fourth of July, running with the devil, taking the back road down to the ocean, burning down the highway skyline, and other images from Bruce Springsteen’s old checklist. “When You Were Young” (the Killers’ own “Thunder Road”), “Bling (Confessions of a King),” “Read My Mind” and “For Reasons Unknown” manage to survive this treatment, and even shine through it. But too many of the songs here fall victim to increasingly gauche production touches: Vegas-revue horns and Valhalla choir in “Bones,” the tympani flourishes that close “Why Do I Keep Counting?” A song has to be pretty solidly written to withstand this kind of overkill; unfortunately, most of the tunes on Sam’s Town aren’t sturdy enough to support all the weight the Killers pile onto them.
That said, Sam’s Town did become a hit, thanks to plenty of touring, not to mention the success of the single “When You Were Young.” The Killers were able to drive off into the sunset, to come back another day, leaving Sawdust in their wake. This CD gathers B-sides, outtakes, radio sessions, a remix of “Mr. Brightside” and other leftovers: 17 tracks in all, plus a short hidden track at the end. Even more than most such collections — which are uncommon among acts with only two studio albums — this one will appeal primarily to the group’s most loyal fans. “Under the Gun,” “Where the White Boys Dance,” “Move Away,” “The Ballad of Michael Valentine” and a stripped-down rendition of “Sam’s Town” (recorded at Abbey Road) are its best songs. The album also includes the band’s version of Joy Division’s “Shadowplay” (from the Ian Curtis biopic Control), a cover of Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet” almost faithful enough to be karaoke, a BBC session performance of Mel Tillis’ “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” and Lou Reed’s duet with Flowers on “Tranquilize.” (Three of the tracks on Sawdust appeared on the “special edition” reissue of Hot Fuss.)
Day & Age navigates a middle path between the first disc’s retro pop appeal and the second’s attempts at retro grandeur — or, more accurately, it takes a slalom path around those poles. On the pop side, the band offers synth-heavy confections like “Spaceman,” “I Can’t Stay” and the maddeningly catchy “Human,” whose chorus-opening line “Are we human / Or are we dancer?” even ends up working as a hook. (It’s such a ridiculous line, it becomes impossible to tune out.) Elsewhere, co-producer Stuart Price (who’s worked with Madonna, New Order, Gwen Stefani and Seal) helps the band deploy its dramatic touches with more restraint and taste. “Losing Touch,” “A Dustland Fairytale,” “Neon Tiger” and “The World We Live In” manage to build momentum, rather than being weighed down by the bombast that made Sam’s Town such an awkward place to visit. The Killers also attempt a couple of fairly exotic styles, in the cocktail funk of “Joy Ride” and the faux-African chants underpinning “This Is Your Life.” Perhaps the group is just trying these styles on to see how they’ll look in the mirror, but both of them turn out to be a decent fit. The only real stumble here is the closing dirge “Goodnight, Travel Well” — proof that the quartet isn’t entirely cured of its tendencies toward the overwrought. Still, Day & Age is the Killers’ most consistent album; if the group can continue refining its synthesis of pop and drama, they should be able to stay in for the long run.
Since 2006, the Killers have recorded seasonal originals to benefit Bono’s AIDS charity, Product Red. These songs — “Don’t Shoot Me Santa,” “A Great Big Sled,” and “Joseph, Better You than Me” — have been made available as downloads.