In rock n’ roll, pretense is required. A rock act can’t be a success in the game if it doesn’t sell its populism with gusto. Consider the acts in whose shadows the Killers toil. Duran Duran? Let’s acknowledge that marketing your band as the “Fab Five” is not particularly retiring. U2? Bono is, right now, embracing the world while wearing a jacket lined with the American flag. And the Boss, the man who is, oddly, still Killers frontman Brandon Flowers’s primary anxious influence? Well, he, of course, maintains in his blue-collar/blue-state traveling preacher persona what is possibly the craftiest pretense in rock—one that appeals, and prevails, because it seems like it actually might be true.
The problem with the Killers, then, is not that they make pretentious claims to populism, but that their compulsory big rock moves often ring false. Take “Neon Tiger,” one of the most blissfully hooky, sun-kissed tracks on the Las Vegas quartet’s third full length, Day & Age. The song’s claim to populism is actually somewhat awkwardly shoehorned into its arena-shaking crescendo, and centers around the lyrically out-of-context exhortation “Come on girls and boys, everybody make some noise!” But what will doubtless play as a crowd-pleasing celebration of American individuality and determination (“Don’t you let them get you away, away, a one/Under the heat of the southwest sun”) is actually a fairly straightforward riff on one of Flowers’s favorite subjects: his own overwhelming specialness. Yes, you did “take to the spotlight like a diamond ring,” didn’t you, Mr. Brightside? Good old-fashioned messianic pop uplift is somewhat less fun when it’s actually narcissism in disguise. And when that narcissism is so easily decoded.
But there’s a problem with this line of critique. Sometimes Flowers focuses his speechifying on topics other than himself, and with more successful results. Witness the incredibly risky, schmaltzified Socratic questioning at the core of “Human,” a song which doubles down on Euro-disco cheese to emerge improbably as the band’s finest single to date. Second single “Spaceman,” which is nearly as successful, avoids faux populism by tying its most enduring hook with the vaguely nonsensical phrase, “The spaceman says everybody look down/It’s all in your mind.” It’s a gambit Flowers often favors, and it’s certainly preferable to bald-faced self-love.
The second problem with calling the Killers out as false populists is that their best music is pretty much perfect pop. And Day & Age, which benefits immeasurably from producer Stuart Price’s Midas touch, is filled wall-to-spotless-wall with hooks. The singles, of course, fire on all 12 cylinders. Even the deeper cuts, like the jaunty Ladysmith Black Mambazo-goes-to-Berlin rocker “This Is Your Life,” the soaring power ballad “A Dustland Fairytale” and the leftfield calypso oddity “I Can’t Stay” are expertly constructed and bristling with thoughtful melodic detail. Price, whose signature take on bass-buzzy house dominates and elevates “Human,” wisely keeps the album’s overall sound variegated, but it would be incorrect to say that he fades into the background: His production is bright and imaginative, fully realized without seeming fussy.
Really, the only misstep is the overweaning dirge of a closer “Goodnight, Travel Well.” Its proggy seven-minute expanse is clearly pitched toward “Important,” as if the jaunty, crowd-pleasing pop the band actually does well were not. After a spirited spin through the small joys and larger triumphs of this record, it’s a tone-deaf reminder that the band fails most when it tries the hardest, and that while Day & Age manages to patch over most of the cracks in the Killers’s façade, they still aren’t done growing into the World’s Biggest Band. Of course, the track is already bringing the house down in concert, so the band will probably duck slings and arrows of this sort while laughing all the way to the bank.