Not even the Killers, the champions of retro new wave, think that synth rock is music to be taken seriously, and Lord knows that this Vegas quartet wants to be taken seriously -- it's a byproduct of being taken far too seriously in the first place, a phenomenon that happened to the Killers after their not-bad-at-all 2004 debut album, Hot Fuss, was dubbed as the beginning of the next big thing by legions of critics and bloggers, all searching for something to talk about in the aftermath of the White Stripes and the Strokes. The general gist of the statement was generally true, at least to the extent that they were a prominent part of the next wave, the wave where new wave revivalism truly caught hold. They were lighter than Interpol and far gaudier, plus they were fronted by a guy called Brandon Flowers, a name so ridiculous he had to be born with it (which he was). And although it was hailed to the heavens on various areas of the Net, Hot Fuss became a hit the old-fashioned way: listeners gravitated toward it, drawn in by "Mr. Brightside" and sticking around for the rest. Soon, they made the cover of everything from Spin to Q, earning accolades from rock stars and seeing their songs covered on Rock Star, too. Heady times, especially for a group with only one album to its name, and any band that receives so much attention is bound to be thought of as important, since there has to be a greater reason for all that exposure than because Flowers is pretty, right? One of the chief proponents of the belief that the Killers are important is the band itself, which has succumbed to that dreaded temptation for any promising band on its sophomore album: they've gone and grown beards. Naturally, this means they're serious adults now, so patterning themselves after Duran Duran will no longer do. No, they make serious music now, and who else makes serious music? Why, U2, of course, and Bruce Springsteen, whose presence looms large over the Killers' second album, Sam's Town.
The ghosts of Bono and the Boss are everywhere on this album. They're there in the artful, grainy Anton Corbijn photographs on the sleeve, and they're there in the myth-making of the song titles themselves -- and in case you didn't get it, Flowers made sure nobody missed the point prior to the release of Sam's Town, hammering home that he's just discovered the glories of Springsteen every time he crossed paths with the press. Flowers' puppy love for Bruce fuels Sam's Town, as he extravagantly, endlessly, and blatantly apes the Springsteen of the '70s, mimicking the ragged convoluted poet of the street who mythologized mundane middle-class life, turning it into opera. The Killers sure try their hardest to do that here, marrying it to U2's own operatic take on America, inadvertently picking up on how the Dublin quartet never sounded more European than when they were trying to tell one and all how much they loved America. That covers the basic thematic outlook of the record, but there's another key piece of the puzzle of Sam's Town: it's named after a casino in the Killers' home town of Las Vegas, and it's not one of the gleeful, gaudy corporate monstrosities glutting the Strip, but rather one located miles away in whatever passes for regular, everyday Vegas -- in other words, it's the city that lies beneath the sparkling façade, the real city. Of course, there's no real city in Vegas -- it's all surface, it's a place that thinks that a miniature Eiffel Tower and a fake CBGB's are every bit as good as being there -- and that's the case with the Killers too: when it comes down to it, there's no "there" there -- it's all a grand act. Every time they try to dig deeper on Sam's Town -- when they bookend the album with "enterlude" and "exitlude," when Flowers mixes his young-hearts-on-the-run metaphors, when they graft Queen choirs and Bowie baritones onto bridges of songs -- they just prove how monumentally silly and shallow they are. Which isn't necessarily the same thing as bad, however. True, this album has little of the pop hooks of "Mr. Brightside," but in its own misguided way, it's utterly unique. Yes, it's cobbled together from elements shamelessly stolen from Springsteen, U2, Echo & the Bunnymen, Bowie, Queen, Duran Duran, and New Order, but nobody on earth would have thought of throwing these heroes of 1985 together, because they would have instinctively known that it wouldn't work. But not the Killers! They didn't let anything stop their monumental misconception; they were able to indulge to their hearts' content -- even hiring U2/Depeche Mode producers Alan Moulder and Flood to help construct their monstrosity, which gives their half-baked ideas a grandeur to which they aspire but don't deserve. But even if the music doesn't really work, it's hard not to listen to it in slack-jawed wonderment, since there's never been a record quite like it -- it's nothing but wrong-headed dreams, it's all pomp but no glamour, it's clichés sung as if they were myths. Every time it tries to get real, it only winds up sounding fake, which means it's the quintessential Vegas rock album from the quintessential Vegas rock band. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine