Tuesday, October 3, 2006
The Killers: Not Killer Enough
Many years ago – while the Killers were still in short trousers – I met a man who worked with Lloyd Cole. At the time, Cole was trying to break into the US market, and his US record company had hired Ric Ocasek of The Cars to remix some of his songs to make them more acceptable to American ears. This seemed odd, as Cole’s music was steeped in Americana. His album Rattlesnakes might have emerged from the English literature class in a Glasgow that was still in awe of Postcard records, but it had the manners of Lou Reed, and a fascination with American writing. But then, if you’re American, and you hear a sullen boy from Derbyshire singing “read Norman Mailer, get a new tailor” it will sound odd. So Ocasek was called, and the Commotions were tweaked. And, according to the story, while they were in the studio, Ocasek opened some mail, including a royalty cheque for $4m. You can get pretty rich making bland pop for FM radio.
Now, the above story may not be true. But at the time, it sounded plausible, and unjust, because in the years after punk there was still something unfashionable about mass popularity, unless it came wrapped in the post-modern tinsel of ABC. It seems appropriate to mention it because Brandon Flowers of the Killers was inspired to make music when, at the age of 12, he bought The Cars’ Greatest Hits. “It was really weird,” he told Spin magazine, “because other kids were buying Tool and Nirvana and I was buying the Cars and the Psychedelic Furs. I was pretty alienated as a kid.” Kurt Cobain, put down your gun.
And the Killers? On paper, they sound great. Mormon kids from Las Vegas, raised on the British (mostly English) pop of the early Eighties. They liked the Cure and Morrissey and borrowed the manners of English new wave, getting it all slightly wrong, and thus sounding new. Transatlantic misappropriation is an honourable tradition, of course, and on a grander scale than Lloyd Cole tipping his beret to Lou Reed. After all, the Beatles were trying to sound American.
But the Killers are not the Beatles. In their more high-flown moments, they sound like ELO trying to sound like the Beatles, but that’s different. They’re a little less pompous than Jeff Lynne, because their songs are infected with new wave energy, but there is a cartoonish aspect to the sound. There are moments on Sam’s Town where everything goes a little bit Queen, but without Freddie Mercury’s operatic voice, or his command of the ridiculous.
The Killers emerged as a more nakedly commercial version of the new new wave which delivered the Strokes, but with the choruses of the Scissor Sisters, and a comparable fascination with kitsch. The Killers are less gay, but only marginally so. And what choruses! Hot Fuss is one of those big pop records that sounds confident of its own brilliance whether you hear it on catwalk, in a shop doorway, or as the soundtrack to the Goal of the Month.
On their difficult second album, the Killers have started to take themselves too seriously. They have a sleeve photograph by Anton Corbijn, whose moody portraiture loaned gravitas to the gloomy post-punk pages of the NME in the early 1980s, and did so much to reposition U2 as the torch-carriers of rock myth. The video to When We Were Young casts them as desert-dwelling desperadoes. Occasionally, in the spiralling guitar lines and strained choruses, there are echoes of U2. The big gestures are even grander now.
No doubt these songs will work in stadiums, but the odd thing about hearing them in the context of the home is that they actually sound better coming from a computer than from hi-fi speakers. The Killers are a very trebly band, and the bigger the woofers, the thinner they get. Which makes them ideal for the iPods of the Google generation.
And now the bad news. The Killers have been listening to Bruce Springsteen. Not the current Bruce, with his retro folk; not the sensitive Bruce of Nebraska; but the big bold broad brushstroke Bruce of Born to Run. You can imagine why this might appeal to Brandon Flowers - a Mormon kid raised in small town Nevada, longing guiltily for the scuzz of Glitter Gulch – but that doesn’t mean he has the chops to carry it off. Springsteen is a narrative storyteller and has created his own fictional universe. The Killers have borrowed some of his moves – the sense of swelling grandeur that infects the songs, and the occasional sonic boom – but they deliver it with all the power of a ringtone on a discarded mobile phone. In their more self-important moments – and there are many - they sound like the Muppet Show band blowing smoke rings. At their best, they have the fairground gaiety of a futurist carousel: those nagging choruses will do well on the waltzers, but there is something eternally Vegas about them. They never sound sincere, which is OK if you’re as happily plastic as the Scissor Sisters, but not if you’re attempting to remould the screeching tyres of the Boss.
There is art to be made from mixing punk neuroses with the vocal mumblings of Vegas Elvis, but Springsteen does that himself when he encores with Suicide’s Dream Baby Dream. Get it wrong, and you’re the new Boomtown Rats.