The Killers want to be taken seriously. If you couldn’t tell from the near-silent two-minute trailer for their new album’s first video, “When You Were Young,” then let lead Killer Brandon Flowers spell it out: the singer told MTV that the follow-up to their 2004 smash, Hot Fuss, would be “one of the best albums in the past 20 years.” But by toning down the glam-pop and turning up the grandeur, it’s possible that the newly bearded band will only incite the scorn of critics even more. A balance of irony and savvy saved Hot Fuss from being a hot mess of uninspired revivalism, but Sam’s Town is just dead serious. The Killers seem like a band posing as a band that wants to be taken seriously. In other words, it’s hard to take their seriousness seriously…or maybe I just prefer eyeliner to facial hair.
The title track of Sam’s Town is everything The Killers have become known for: thumping, propulsive beats; sing-talky lyrics; towering synths; bold, inescapable hooks. The album’s intro, entitled “Enterlude,” comes next, a curious but fitting placement as “Sam’s Town” plays like a farewell to the Killers we once knew. They’ve turned toward a different kind of bravado. If Hot Fuss sounded like an American band trying to sound like a British act, then Sam’s Town sounds like a British band trying to sound American, channeling both Bruce Springsteen and U2, a band whose American dominance is eclipsed only by its allegiance to Ireland.
The Killers commissioned U2 cohorts Flood and Alan Moulder to help them fashion a collection of arena-rock Americana, and they certainly succeed, heaping layers of guitar overdubs, rollicking drums, and lone, epochal electric riffs throughout. “When You Were Young” is less glitzy than the band’s previous hits, but it’s the best song here, brandishing a hook as unlikely and powerful as the image of Brandon Flowers actually wandering across a desert: “He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus/But he talks like a gentleman.” While it’s not exactly an album’s worth of “All These Things I’ve Done,” Sam’s Town picks up where that single left off, showing a softer, more soulful side of Flowers on tracks like “Why Do I Keep Counting,” “For Reasons Unknown,” and “Bones,” which, at first, sounds nothing like The Killers at all.
Unfortunately, Flowers’s idea of “American” is tossing off lines like “Red, white and blue upon a birthday cake” on the title track and “I ran with the devil” on the Springsteen-esque “Bling (Confessions Of A King).” The Killers have proven repeatedly that they’re great—if not brilliant—emulators, but they’ve yet to demonstrate that they can do anything truly original. Sam’s Town provides a frame for all of Flowers’s grandiose claims, but it’s ultimately a hollow one that begs to be filled with the relevance of something like Green Day’s American Idiot, which could have been an equally vacant gesture had it come from a less seasoned band.
Sam’s Town is the kind of autofellatio that could destroy a band’s career. And while they probably aren’t going anywhere (Panic! At The Disco won’t be taking their place anytime soon), it’s hard to disguise or ignore a slump the size of a landfill. The Killers may have grown a heart for Sam’s Town, but they also grew even bigger egos, and it’s unlikely that the album’s bombast and self-importance will convert any new fans. Brandon Flowers will be happy to know that The Killers did indeed record one of the best albums of the past 20 years, but it already came out in 2004.