The Killers: Born to Tootle

With "Sam's Town," the Killers deliver a less than satisfying combination of anthemic and anemic. (By Anton Corbijn)
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 4, 2006

It's appropriate that the Killers hail from the most imitative and artificial of American cities, Las Vegas, where phoniness has been elevated to an art form. For if they aren't the most spurious act in contemporary rock, the Killers are at least included in the conversation.

That's especially true now that they're no longer passing themselves off as a glammy British band: For their sophomore album, "Sam's Town," the Killers have swapped the shiny suits, mascara and Duran Duran/New Order fixations of 2004's "Hot Fuss" for snap shirts, facial scruff and a burning desire to prove they're the bastard children of Bruce Springsteen and Bono.

The result is hardly convincing.

"Sam's Town" is an ersatz epic that desperately wants to reach the incredible heights of vintage Springsteen and U2. But it fails in spectacular fashion, collapsing under the weight of its own pomposity, not to mention all those Americana cliches that the principal lyricist Brandon Flowers has crammed onto the album's dozen tracks: There are back roads and hurricanes, Main Streets and two-star towns -- even a red, white and blue birthday cake on the Fourth of July.

"Sam's Town" is also loaded with references to broken dreams, broken hearts and misplaced youth that seem to come straight out of the Springsteen canon. One song, "Read My Mind," even sounds like a checklist of images that Flowers picked up while absorbing the Boss's mid-'70s work: The good old days, the honest man, the restless heart, the promised land, the teenage queen, the loaded gun, etc.

Clearly, the Killers are trying to make a serious, sincere statement. Just one problem: They don't really have much to say, as their ideas don't come close to matching their newfound ambitions. As such, "Sam's Town" is all style, no soul -- an empty plot behind a quasi-fancy facade whose seemingly stately marble columns are, in fact, made of stucco.

"I've got this energy beneath my feet, like something underground's gonna come up and carry me," Flowers sings on the title track. Yet the band doesn't deliver on that promise. The album is grounded by its generally leaden writing and hooks that aren't nearly as sharp as they were on the deliciously tuneful debut, "Hot Fuss." Not even the wobbly first single, "When You Were Young," has a particularly memorable melody. (Much better is "For Reasons Unknown," yet another song about when you were young.)

The new album's arrangements are overcrowded and overblown, too. Strings, choirs and E Street-style horns fight for space with synths and Dave Keuning's swelling, reverb-laden guitars. Almost every song features a soaring chorus that aims for the fences. That includes "Uncle Jonny," a dark, droning number about a coke-addict relative that finishes with an anthemic flourish, a sort of chorus-as-intervention.

But Flowers isn't a power hitter, his tremulous voice too small, his range too limited to propel these soaring rock anthems into the stratosphere. It was far better suited for the less grandiose songs of "Hot Fuss," which sold 5 million copies worldwide.

The Killers are rolling the dice that their dramatic "Sam's Town" makeover will win them even more converts. On the "Exitlude" that closes the album, they sing: "We hope you enjoyed your stay." Oh, if only. Now, which way to the seafood buffet?

DOWNLOAD THIS : "For Reasons Unknown"

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